Old recordings of classical music may have less to teach us than many critics think.
By Mark Kroll
It has been more than 100 years since the first wax cylinder scratched out a reproduction of someone screaming into a megaphone, but classical music recordings still “can’t get no respect.” A common lament has been that, regardless of the Memorex ads, recorded sound is never as good as a live performance. Probably true, but I must admit that it is sometimes nice to listen without the accompaniment of that coughing chorus in the row behind you, or the anxiety you feel when you notice that the person sitting next to you has brought 200 pieces of candy, each wrapped in cellophane. Then there are those prophets who claim that the classical recording heralds the end of live concerts altogether. We have been hearing this ever since the medium was invented, but the last time I looked concert attendance was up and sales of CDs were down.
Musicians have always had a love/hate relationship with recordings. We are, ultimately, entertainers, and it is not easy to entertain when you are sitting alone in an acoustically dead room the size of a closet, playing for a microphone that never smiles. Ferruccio Busoni, the great pianist of the early 20th century, absolutely detested recording. He, and many performers from that era, admitted that they never took the new medium seriously, and rarely gave it their best.
Today’s musicians, however, have made a pact with the devil. They know that CDs are important for launching and sustaining a career, and it is also comforting to think that someone is enjoying your playing while you are sitting at home watching an episode of “Law and Order.” Nevertheless, we can’t forget that serious compromises are being made. The harpsichordist Fernando Valenti, who made hundreds of recordings in the 1950s and 60s, perhaps said it best: “recording should be seen and not heard.”
The effect of the recording industry on the classical music world is a hot topic these days. Three books have been published on the subject, and most acknowledge the positive attributes of the medium, especially the way it has made it possible for the largest number of people to hear the widest variety of repertoire. Some authors, however, are now questioning the effect of recordings on the very act of live performance itself.
The major complaint is that performers often find themselves in the unenviable position of competing with the perfection of their own highly edited and engineered recordings. Only the Pope is infallible, or so they tell us, but audiences can’t help but be disappointed or confused when they eagerly attend a concert of one of their favorite recording artists and hear, horrors, mistakes. This, the critics tell us, has caused modern performers to avoid those technical and interpretative risks that can either transport an audience, or court disaster. Instead, they offer squeaky-clean concerts that are highly proficient but homogenized and boring.
To prove their point that concerts were more exciting in the past, the critics ironically turn to — older recordings! Listening to them, it is hard not to notice that many of the performances sound sloppy, poorly rehearsed, and out of tune. No problem, say the critics. This is actually a good thing, since it is the result of a spontaneity and freedom that is missing in contemporary recordings and concerts. They also conclude that these records represent the general level of performance at the time. This is wrong on both counts. A well-prepared, precise and brilliant performance was just as important to the musicians of the 18th and 19th centuries as it is today. Liszt, Chopin, and Paganini would never have settled for anything less.
These writers also try to draw conclusions about supposedly “authentic” performance practices from vintage discs, such as the question about how and where to use vibrato. This has always been a blood pressure-raising issue among early music performers, some of whom still cling to the belief that vibrato was never used in Baroque music and only rarely in the 19th century (we’re talking Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner here). The historical evidence and pure common musical sense prove otherwise. Singers and instrumentalists almost always used vibrato. You can find references to it, and instructions on how to do it, in sources going back hundreds of years. I’ll cite just one, from the 18th-century violinist Francesco Geminiani, who urged players to use vibrato “on every note.”
This hasn’t stopped some critics from using these old recordings to bolster their argument that the great artists from the turn of the century did not use vibrato. Alex Ross, in a recent article for the “New Yorker,” refers to the 1903 recording of Brahms’ favorite violinist Joseph Joachim, who was 73 years old at the time and could barely lift his bow arm, drawing the conclusion that “until about 1920, vibrato was used quite sparingly.” One must ask why anyone would use the arthritic Joachim as a model.
Moreover, Ross seems to be following the lead of Roger Norrington. This is a bad idea. Norrington is a second rate conductor who jumped on the early-music bandwagon to launch his improbable career by proselytizing the no-vibrato dogma and other misguided performance practices. He once wrote, without offering any documentation, that “what was new in the 20th century was the idea of continuous vibrato.” Worse yet, he tells us that Fritz Kreisler “started the fashion, drawing on the style of caf?usicians and Hungarian and Gypsy fiddlers.” The notion that the sophisticated and well-schooled Kreisler learned his vibrato from gypsies is so absurd that it needs no further comment.
Does this mean that old recordings cannot teach us anything? No, we can indeed learn a great deal from them. One example is the way pianists used to stagger chords, playing the left hand before the right, rather than together as we do today. This expressive tradition can be traced back to the harpsichordists of the 17th century, and persisted until World War I.
So try to avoid the temptation to wax nostalgically about the “truth” found in these old recordings. They are, after all, only snapshots of the moment, made under less than ideal conditions. More importantly, please repeat after me… a recording is not a performance.