Late last year, the Berlin Phil launched its "Digital Concert Hall" with great fanfare. For the first time, they announced, the seasons's events of a major, internationally renowned orchestra are brought live into your living room over streamed Internet video.

The first performance went out on January 6th, with Simon Rattle conducting Brahms's Symphony no. 1, preceded by the Dvořák Slavonic Dance no. 8. I've just listened through to the Dvořák, which is available on their "concert archives".

Apart from a fairly clunky setup and login process, I can't fault the Berlin Philharmonic's technical execution of the site. Both audio and video quality are very good indeed, and once I'd sorted out a few problems on the home Wifi network, the download experience proceeded completely smoothly. The audio is good enough that you genuinely get a feel of the concert hall frisson the few moments before the conductor comes on stage. But I must confess that I was a little underwhelmed by the whole experience - to my surprise, since I'm a fan of digitally streamed opera.

As you'd expect, the performance was up to the Berlin Phil's high standards. But somehow, and I'm not entirely sure why, the pictures didn't add much to my enjoyment of the music. Certainly, you get a closer view of the conductor and many players than you ever manage in a real concert hall, and you get a real feel for the concentration and effort that is going into the playing. But there's something missing, and it's probably to do with control. In a live hall, I choose whether I'm watching the conductor, some particular set of instrument players, or simply the rest of the audience. In a video download, it's the director of the broadcast who is making the choices for me, and inevitably, his choices will be different from mine. Even if they're not obviously wrong-headed (for example, a close-up of an instrument at a moment when a different instrument is obviously carrying the tune, or a shot of the conductor at the point at which he is doing nothing other than to watch the orchestra), the fact remains that I don't get to choose what to focus on. Perhaps this criticism will diminish as the directors and cameramen gain experience and consistently pick great shots - not an easy task in a live broadcast.

The commercial terms of the site go like this: season ticket holders get access to everything for the whole season (at €149, or €89 for this season, as the service started when the season was half way through). Watching a single concert live costs €9.90. After a number of days (at time of writing, the Berlin Phil were still deciding on exactly how many), the concert is transferred to the "archives", where it is possible to view the full concert at the same price of €9.90 or individual programme items at a lower price. For the archives, buying a ticket gives you 48 hours in which to watch your concert from your first attempt at downloading.

Whether or not you think it's worth the money will depend on your attitude. The pricing is obviously cheap compared to an actual trip to a concert hall: if you can't possibly visit the Berlin Philharmonic hall and are excited by the idea of hearing live performances from the home of what's arguably the top orchestra in the world, then it's great value. On the other hand, if you see the process as little more than listening to a good live recording of the work, then the whole thing looks very expensive compared to buying the recorded work on a CD which will remain in your collection indefinitely.

Other orchestras will be watching Berlin carefully to see whether this is an idea that catches on.

If you want to try the service, go to, register your username, run their streaming test to check your PC setup, and go to the Archives section. The Dvořák from the 6th January performance is available free, or you can pay for some of the other works. You'll need a reasonably high spec PC (2 GHz CPU and 1 Gbyte of RAM, and at least 1 Mbps of internet bandwidth, with 6 Mbps recommended to get the highest video quality).

David Karlin 14th January 2009