The closer they zoom in on the stage, the more obvious the novelty effect: Sir Simon Rattle is standing in front – discernibly in front – of the Berlin Philharmonic, which is ranged in a broad and palpably deep horseshoe.
The Berlin Phil! In Singapore! In 3D! The lens weaves its way through the violins, making us feel like we’re in amongst them, but inducing faint seasickness. The clarinet chirps in with its Mahlerian wake-up call and close-ups show the 3D contours of the player’s lips, fingernails, beads of sweat on his hairline. An oboist takes over, bushy 3D eyebrows wiggling in time to his hefty vibrato.
For all its gimmicky visuals and conceptual peculiarities, the best thing about the Berlin Phil’s latest multi-media venture – the dubiously entitled A Musical Journey In 3D – is, inevitably, its soundtrack. This is a phenomenal performance of Mahler 1: luxurious, poised, brooding. The sound quality of this orchestra is unrivalled in its warmth and depth and cohesion, and it’s worth the film’s ticket price to glean an insight into the process of how that sound happens.
By means of nifty editing work, the film, directed by Michael Beyer, shows us exactly where to look, drawing our attention to a particular solo line or counter melody. The wind section breathes impeccably together, the strings synchronise every detail of their bowings and move as a universally committed unit. There’s not a fast turnover of players in the Berlin Phil, and it shows in their absolute physical complicity. That is thrilling to see.
But why the 3D? None of the film’s selling points relies on the pricey technology, which if anything exaggerates the usual downsides of filming classical music concerts. For example, no musician looks attractive up close when they’re playing, not least when their muscle contortions and strained facial expressions are plastered in HD multi-dimensions across a large screen. Sir Simon fares particularly badly in this respect, as the camera angles somehow make him look more cardboard cut-out than eminent maestro. More worrying from a box-office perspective is that, visually speaking, nothing much happens. The physical drama in orchestral concerts boils down to a twitch of an eyebrow and a tap of a booted toe. I’ll be curious to see how the cineplexes manage to trail this one.
They could do worse than using the image of the horn section standing for the triumphant close of the symphony – the apex of the film’s cinematic action and an inescapably rousing moment, even in virtual reproduction. The Singapore audience applauds politely – a soggy patter of sound compared with the bombast that has just been heard – and then a strange thing happens. Rather than send us home on a high of horns and Rattle’s victory grin, the film launches into a ill-advised Part Two.
Hearing anything directly after Mahler 1 is bound to be jarring; being blasted with Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and a series of inane images sponsored by the Singapore Tourist Board is ruinous. Puppet dragons prance around a glade of trees; teenagers pose by a fountain; old folks perform tai chi in a park. What any of this has to do with Berlin or Rachmaninov I’m not sure. Imagine a similar venture at home: Philharmoniker-meets-VisitScotland, cameras sweeping down colour-enhanced lochs and glens to a soundtrack of Ma Vlast or Appalachian Spring.
The Singapore Tourist Board’s sponsorship of A Musical Journey is buried in acronym deep in the press blurb, but its commercial presence nearly overwhelms the “musical journey”. The Berlin Phil is of course right to explore media ventures that might attract new audiences, but surely its hard-earned gravitas is worth more than tourist shots of an unrelated skyline? Besides, the orchestra happens to have one of the most iconic home concert halls in the world, the Hans Scharoun-designed Philharmonie, with its fabulous acoustics and egalitarian seating arrangement. Note to any potential makers of A Musical Journey Returns: virtual tour around the Philharmonie, please.
Berlin Philharmoniker: A Musical Journey in 3D opens in selected Scottish cinemas from May 9-12, including Glasgow Film Theatre and Cineworld, Renfrew Street, today. For listings and further information, visit www.amusicaljourneyin3d.com.