30 December 2012

Digital rebirth for my vintage Leica lenses -- via Fujifilm X-E1 (Part 1): 50mm Noctilux 1.0, 75mm Summilux and 135mm Tele-Elmar

It is a long story. But I'll cut it short.

Before the advent of digital photography, i.e. when I shot film, I used Leica M lenses and cameras, M3, M6, M6TTL and M7, because Leica lenses were, and still are, top-quality lenses and Leica M cameras were engineering masterpieces, particularly the M3, and at that time their prices were never as outrageous as current ones. When the world changed over to digital, unfortunately a dichotomy between Leica lenses and Leica digital cameras became evident, the latter being unworthy partners of the former. At that time, I thought it was foolish to pay such sums of money for an M8 or M9 whose specifications were simply below par.

So my Leica lenses became seldom used.

Then alternatives in terms of mirrorless cameras appeared: the Panasonic and Olympus micro-4/3 systems, Sony NEX system and the interesting Ricoh GXR with A12 M-mount system. I then tried the Panasonic G3 with a M-mount adapter. But I'm not impressed with the focusing system and the result. Then came the Fujifilm X-Pro1, but it was overpriced. I was quite sure that some cheaper and more cost-effective bodies would appear later. Now such a body comes, the X-E1. One caveat: the X-E1 has only an APS-C sensor.

I won't go into details of what the X-E1 can and can't do, and how it does this and that. A simple Google search can tell you all that. The only thing I'd like to say is that the Leica rangefinder system is intrinsically compromised for focal lengths of more than 90mm. In fact one is at pains with focusing even the 90mm Summicron with the 0.72x or even the 0.85x viewfinder magnification in the M6 or M7. The M3, with a 0.91x magnification, is of course better, especially when compared with the dismaying 0.68x in the M8 and M9, but for very precise focusing for the 135mm, it has often been a hit-and-miss affair. Of course you can add an external 1.25x or 1.4x magnifier but that is quite cumbersome -- I have been using one. And the M3 has no frame lines for 75mm. The problem goes on in the other end of the focal length spectrum, for wide-angle lenses external finders mounted on the hot-shoe need to be used. These viewfinder problems can be circumvented largely by high-end through-the-lens EVFs, and this is exactly what the X-E1 can offer. Yes, EVFs have their intrinsic deficiencies, but they are much improved than early generation ones.

It then becomes reasonable that I take out my vintage 75mm Summilux-M and 135mm Tele-Elmar to test them on the new X-E1 body with the Fujifilm M-mount adapter. I add in the 50mm Noctilux-M, as the depth of field (DOF) is so small at f/1 that precise focusing is not easy on an M body, especially if there is some mechanical mismatch in the focusing system. The production of these 3 lenses has ceased.

The gear in question: Fujifilm X-E1 with Leica 50mm/F1.0 Noctilux-M, 75mm/F1.4 Summilux-M and 135mm/F4 Tele-Elmar (taken with Panasonic G3 with Leica DG Summilux 25mm/F1.4 ASPH at f/8, 1/60s, ISO 160, with flash)

Here are some picture taken with these lenses on Fujifilm X-E1. All pictures were taken using the largest aperture in each lens. The pictures were resized to 1600 pixels. No tuning was performed on them except some cropping in 2 of them. The bokeh of the 75mm Summilux is very pleasing.

Leica 75mm Summilux-M at f/1.4, 1/400s, -1/3EV, ISO 200

Leica 75mm Summilux-M at f/1.4, 1/450s, ISO 200

Leica 75mm Summilux-M at f/1.4, 1/350s, ISO 200
(The blurred background is a tram stop with people in clothes of different colours.)

Leica 75mm Summilux-M at f/1.4, 1/40s, ISO 200

Leica 135mm Tele-Elmar at f/4, 1/70s, ISO 1600

Leica 135mm Tele-Elmar at f/4, 1/120s, ISO 1600

Leica 50mm Noctilux-M at f/1, 1/60s. ISO 400

Leica 50mm Noctilux-M at f/1, 1/60s. ISO 400

Leica 75mm Summilux-M at f/1.4, 1/30s, ISO 1600 
(This is Andrew's Canon)

The bokeh in the picture above is so creamy and lovely.

In a sense, my vintage Leica lenses are offered a rebirth in the digital world, at a fraction of the cost of the Leica M8 or M9, with no significant loss of the magic of these lenses.

It is one of the best Christmas presents for me in years.

25 December 2012

A festive Brucknerian sojourn in Taipei

Wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and blessed New Year.

Christmas tree in Taipei Train Station

Sometimes when my passion for Bruckner's music has reached fever pitch, I'd tend to do some funny things in the eyes of the disinterested. That was exactly the case when I decided on Friday 14 December to fly to Taipei and attend Shao-Chia Lü's Bruckner's Sixth concert two days later on 16 December. As I need to go to work on Saturdays and Mondays, particularly the latter when I invariably have a very busy schedule, the only option left is to fly to Taipei on Sunday morning and come back to Hong Kong on the first flight on Monday morning. That would mean I have to take the first coach at 04:30 from the Taipei train station to the airport to catch the 07:00 flight, so as to arrive in Hong Kong at 08:45 and then go to work straightaway. Every one will notice immediately that it is not the smartest itinerary in comfort terms. But anyway it was what this silly bloke had pursued.

This is not my first time going to Taipei for concerts. I've done that quite some years ago, but as there were no special reasons to entice me to concerts there in recent years, this trip suddenly became something like meeting with an old friend. The National Concert Hall is housed in a very beautiful building, one of two similar buildings flanking the Liberty Square in front of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in central Taipei.

The National Theater in the foreground and the National Concert Hall in the background

The National Concert Hall Taipei

The National Theater Taipei

I was lucky to be able to book online a ticket in one of best positions, in the centre of the stall seats. Much to my surprise, this is not a top-priced ticket but only second in the price ladder. As such the pricing in this concert hall is a little strange and different from all of the concert venues I've attended. However, who would complain paying less for one of the best positioned seats? 

It is a pity that the attendance in this concert was rather disappointing. When I last checked the online ticketing service on 15 December, there were still more than 1000 tickets left for sale. This concert hall has 2074 seats. Looking around before the concert, my impression was that the hall was almost half empty, but with a sizeable portion of the audience in the stalls seats, it didn't look that bad.

The Taiwanese audience is one of the best in terms of concert etiquette I've encountered in my concert attending experience. They are quiet and attentive, which although it sounds so simple and basic, is not something to be taken for granted in many other places. And it made the concert all the more memorable.

The concert leaflet on the left and the programme booklet on the right

The concert programme on that night is truly generous. The first half is made up of Mozart's Symphony No. 35 "Haffner" and the world premiere of a commissioned work by Christian Jost, Taipei Horizon. The second half is the main attraction for me: Bruckner's Symphony No. 6 in A major. The programme notes can be accessed on line here.

The seating of the strings section on that night was, from the left to the right of the conductor, first violins, second violins, cellos and then violas. The tone and playing of the violins are enviable. However, one would wish for a cello section with more weight and depth in tone. The woodwinds are a definite asset in the orchestra. It is overall a very fine ensemble, superior to many Asian orchestras.

The Mozart was light and graceful in the Andante and Menuetto, but I'd wish for a little more fire in the outer movements. The premiered work is a single movement piece which I quite like.

Shao-Chia Lü proves to be a very eloquent Brucknerian as judged from his live recording of Bruckner's Fourth and the present concert of the Sixth. One of the hallmarks in his Bruckner is the warmth and beauty of sound he conveys. His phrasings and legatos are lovely. While musicologists might have differing ideas in the debate about speech-like versus song-like interpretations in Bruckner, Lü's is definitely song-like and lyrical.

The nervousness in the opening of the symphony -- some imperfect intonations in the brass and the violin's rhythmic opening could be more distinct -- was soon overcome from the second thematic group onwards. I was smiling when I heard the immense range of fine modulations the conductor bestowed on the first movement and the rich palette of colour the orchestra showed. The first movement finished with an exuberant incandescence in the coda. The woodwinds stole the limelight particularly in the Adagio, not least the oboe lament in the first theme. The dialogue between the cellos and first violins was also absorbing. I'd like to hear, however, a little more contrasts between the different thematic groups in this sonata-form slow movement. A finely balanced rhythmic Scherzo was paired with a Trio with lovely exchanges between the superb woodwinds and the strings. When it came to the Finale, the orchestra did not disappoint. The orchestra and the conductor were like hand in glove, and together they concluded the symphony in the triumphant A major splendour.

Objectively I might say the night was a qualified success, but deep in my heart I was already satisfied with having the opportunity to hear this less-often performed Bruckner symphony so finely and dedicatedly performed. 

I have already set sight on the NSO's next Bruckner concert: Bruckner's Fifth conducted by Günther Herbig on 10 May 2013.

Before I end this post, let me share with you some snapshots of the beautiful phalaenopsis orchids in Taiwan. These orchids are simply amazing.

19 December 2012

When Mariss Jansons met Ludwig van Beethoven

Mariss Jansons performed Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra before a papal audience in the Paul VI Audience Hall, Vatican on 27 October 2007, and this concert was issued on DVD (Arthaus Musik 101457) and SACD (BR Klassik 900108) before to much acclaim.

Now comes his full cycle on BR Klassik 900118, a 5-CD box set, recorded between 2007 and 2012. The oldest was the Second recorded on 1-2 March 2007 and the newest was the Sixth, on 8-9 November 2012 -- just a little more than a month ago! 

I have to say that it is a very impressive cycle.

13 December 2012

A mature Sino-Austrian symbiosis -- Shao-Chia Lü with the Taiwan Philharmonic and Bruckner's Fourth Symphony

Shao-Chia Lü (呂紹嘉), a Taiwanese conductor graduated from the Hochschule für Musik Wien with excellence in 1991, has won the International Kiril Kondrashin Competition for conductors, International Besançon Competition for Young Conductors (both first prize and Lyre d'Or award) and the Pedrotti International Competition for Orchestra Conductors. After having worked for more than 10 years in Europe, he became the Music Director of the Taiwan Philharmonic, also known as the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), in 2010. A highly gifted musician, he has made many concerts with the NSO to great acclaim. He was featured in a previous NSO Live CD, recorded even before he was the Music Director of the NSO. The present 2-CD is his second in this series. Disc 1 includes Bruckner's Symphony No. 4, and Disc 2 contains The Swan of Tuonela by Sibelius and Pelléas and Mélisande by Schoenberg.

The Bruckner was recorded live at the National Concert Hall, Taipei on 25 September 2010, while the other 2 were recorded live in 2011. The conductor-orchestra rapport was so mature in the Bruckner concert that it come as a total surprise, at least to me, that it was only his second concert as Music Director with the NSO.

As you can see from the pictures below, the packaging is a lavish display of care and love, and it is not just skin-deep. The liner notes, attached to the inside front cover and of 23 pages, are what one would expect from a conscientious release. Bibliographies and essays are bilingual, in Chinese and English. What warms my heart is that the programme notes in Chinese are not mere translated copies of those in English, or vice versa. The English essays make use of Georg Tintner's notes from Naxos, while the Chinese ones are written by Prof. Lu-Fen Yen (顏綠芬), Professor of Musicology in the Taipei National University of the Arts. Even the recording equipment and monitors are listed at the end.

The beautiful cover with an attached bilingual flyer

The add-on bilingual back cover

The original front and back cover in English

The attached liner notes on the left and the inner cover for the CD trays on the right

The package fully opened showing the 2 CDs

How about the performance then? My simple answer is: every doubt, every incertitude, every misgiving about a Chinese orchestra led by a Chinese conductor in a Bruckner symphony is answered admirably in this performance by Lü and the NSO.

The music unfolds naturally with nifty phrasings and subtle nuances, but the wood is not missed for the trees. The long span of the structure is evident as Lü always shows a clear sense of direction, for example from the Hauptthema to the Coda in the first movement. Tempo relationships are finely balanced. The second movement, Andante quasi allegretto, is simply lovely. The cellos play with such cantabile that melts my heart. The flutes are like angels. The hunting Scherzo is fittingly lively and rhythmic. Lü's fine control and the orchestra's ensemble might are clearly shown in the crescendo and even subito passages in the Finale. When the symphony comes to its end, it finishes gloriously.  

The only minor problem is the recorded sound: the lower frequencies are lightweight. Thus in general the strings lack the body while the lower strings in particular lack the weight and darkness of many Austro-German orchestras. But the transparency of each instrumental group is a joy to listen to. This slight de-emphasis of the bass soon gets out of my mind as my attention is firmly grasped by the beautiful musical flow. To me the hi-fi element in a recording is only of secondary importance to the musical element after all.

Hats off to the maestro and the orchestra.

I: 18'25"
II: 15'10"
III: 11'12"
IV: 22'24" with applause (Music ends at 21'07")

04 December 2012

Anthology of the RCO -- Beethoven symphonies

Looking through the 7 volumes of the Anthology of the RCO, I found that a complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies is almost present. Only the Second is not represented in this series. 

The 8 symphonies included are listed as follows:

Sym 1: Wilhelm Furtwängler, 13/7/1950 (Vol 1, CD12)

Sym 3: Nikolaus Harnoncourt, 16/10/1988 (Vol 5, CD12)

Sym 4: Willem van Otterloo, 19/3/1972 (Vol 4, CD4)

Sym 5: Erich Kleiber, 28/4/1950 (Vol 1, CD12)

Sym 6: Wolfgang Sawallisch, 10/3/1991 (Vol 6, CD3)

Sym 7: Josef Krips, 24/5/1952 (Vol 2, CD4)

Sym 8: Pierre Monteux, 14/5/1962 (Vol 3, CD1)

Sym 9: Mariss Jansons, 25/12/2006 (Vol 7, CD9)

From the earliest recording in 1950 till the last in 2006, this "cycle" spans more than half a century. Only the arguably least popular Beethoven symphony, the Second, is not included. It also features a formidable list of conductors, from the giants in Europe in the 1950's to the orchestra's present Chief Conductor. Many of these recordings are important not only in their historical significance, but also in their artistic value.