Vienna New Year Concert, Les Miz in London on Blu-ray

Some months back I ran across a region-free Blu-ray of the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra’s 2014 New Year’s Concert (Sony Classical). I already owned the 2012 edition (it’s an annual event, as you might have guessed!), which I hadn’t yet watched. The price was right for this 2014 version, so I added it to my collection. That is, I added it to my shelf of as yet unseen Blu-ray discs (I suspect all serious collectors have such a shelf). It waited there patiently until I felt the need to pull out a few potentially good sounding concert Blu-rays. This one seemed like a good candidate, so I popped it into my Oppo player.

Two different soundtracks are offered: 24-bit PCM 2-channel and 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio (also from a 24-bit master). I marginally preferred the multichannel option, though both sounded excellent. A bit on the warm side, perhaps, but those who have been to the classic, shoebox-shaped big hall at the Vienna Musikverein (I haven’t), the Philharmonic’s home, comment on the house’s warm, enveloping acoustics. That’s what I heard (or at least as well as home surround sound can replicate). From the off-center listening position I favor for audio with video material, the sound of the orchestra blended beautifully rather than offering a pinpoint image. While the performance was terrific, this non-Austrian heard a bit too much from the Strauss brothers (plus a pinch of the “other” Strauss, Richard, and a taste from other composers). But these holiday concerts are intended to be light. While there’s nothing like a Mozart or Verdi Requiem to ring in the New Year, in Vienna you can’t have too much Strauss with your strudel.

But the audio was only half the show on this disc. The video (1080i and none the worse for it) is absolutely reference quality. The Musikverein isn’t often called the Golden Hall for nothing. The photography here makes love to the gold-gilded décor; I’m sure you’ve never seen anything quite like it. More than half the almost 2:40 running time is also devoted to shots of the orchestra and conductor Daniel Barenboim. These scenes look just as amazing, with incredible detail and reference quality flesh tones.

I also checked out (finally) the 2012 concert Blu-ray. The music is similar. If you’re a completest you may want to own as many of the Vienna Neujahrs releases as you can find (I haven’t seen any aside from the two mentioned here). But the sound on the 2012 release is just a hair less convincing than the 2014 version. And while the video is still respectable high def and good in many of the close-ups, it isn’t nearly as jaw-droppingly detailed and pristine. If you need only one such disc, the 2014 version is the way to go. The main attraction of the 2012 release is the conductor, Mariss Jansons, whose facial expressions and wide, effusive gestures are a hoot next to Barenboim’s more staid, dignified demeanor.

Some Amazon reviewers of this disc have complained about the absence of the Julie Andrews commentary that was part of this concert when it was broadcast on PBS. Didn’t bother me, but just so you know.

While I was in a music mood, I pulled out my Blu-ray of the 25th Anniversary concert of Les Misérables. This disc may be harder to find; as I write this it appears to be scarce even on Amazon. It’s a spectacular presentation (though some Amazon reviewers prefer the 10th Anniversary edition, which is available only on DVD). While not fully staged, the 25th is performed in full costume with first-rate singers. Mostly that is—Nick Jonas, clearly a commercial casting choice, isn’t quite up to the level demanded of his part, though he doesn’t embarrass himself. There’s also a full symphony orchestra, a huge chorus decked out in the colors of the French flag, and giant video screens above the chorus to supplement the limited scenery. It’s a genuine visual feast, and a fine transfer that brings out the color, detail, and wide variations in brightness from bright to near dark.

One problem, however, is that the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack (there’s also a 2-channel track, but it’s lossy Dolby Digital Plus). As performed in the immense Millennium Dome in London, the audio ranges from impressive to cringe worthy, particularly when played back at the level this performance demands. It sounds as if the presence region, from about 1kHz to 6kHz, is has been hyped out of all proportion. This was particularly irritating on solo and small group vocals. Poorly-chosen microphones, perhaps, or misguided EQ attempting to insure that the lyrics are intelligible? Fortunately my Integra pre-pro has an octave equalizer. I rarely use it, and never on equipment reviews, but here it was a necessity. I pulled down the 1-6kHz region of the front left and right channels by 4-6dB and reduced the level of the center channel by about 2dB. Your settings will vary, depending on your speakers and room. But the result was then spectacular. If you’re a fan of this opera (and it is an opera, not just a musical), and can tolerate (or alter) the poorly-balanced recording, you’ll want to scare up a copy. If your only knowledge of the piece is the 2012 movie, this version (for the most part) will show you how it how it should be sung.

bobrapoport's picture

Hi Tom, thanks for your comments about these Blu-ray discs, I too have enjoyed the concert hall in Vienna, the video in this case delivering a different kind of listening experience, using more of our senses to create an extraordinary new way to listen. Seeing the conductor eyes meet with the musicians, the concentration and emotion cannot be appreciated in an audio only version.

Regarding the second program, I too have learned that DTS MasterHD is not quite at home for music as the original LPCM version, set your processor to PCM for playback and compare the two, I think you will find the PCM to be more natural. DTS MasterHD for movie soundtracks is fine, but its equalized to add more bass and mid-range than the original soundtrack, a kind of "wow" factor that works well for special effects but not that great with music. You dont need to listen in DTS MasterHD, the audio standard for Blu-ray is LPCM, even when you choose the DTS MasterHD soundtrack on the disc's set up options. The player converts the soundtrack to PCM for the transmission via HDMI downstream automatically.

Best regards,

Thomas J. Norton's picture
I've found the same issue on the PCM track of Lez Miz.

You are not correct about LPCM on Blu-ray. The player converts the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the disc to LPCM if you select LPCM--the latter is not native to the disc. If you select bitstream, the pre-pro or AVR converts the soundtrack to provide the required analog out. In no case do I know of a recent movie that carries a lossless LPCM multichannel soundtrack (it can be done, and was done on some early Blu-rays, but hasn't been used for years). Today most soundtracks on Blu-ray discs are, almost without exception, either DTS-HD Master audio or DolbyTrueHD, not LPCM.

The idea that movies in DTS-HD Master Audio are pumped up in the bass and treble is a story that was common in the early days of lossy DTS. It involved mainly the way that the 0.1 soundtrack was recorded and dedoded. To our knowledge that is no longer an issue with lossless DTS-HD Master Audio.

applebyter's picture

I have both the 10th anniversary DVD and the 25th anniversary Blu-Ray. I'd have to agree that the performance and sound quality of the 10th anniversary are better. (Note: The 10th anniversary DVD has 2 channel LPCM and 5.1 Dolby, the quality comment naturally only applies to the 2 channel recording.) I would say that the visual design of the 25th anniversary performance is more engaging.

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