Concert Going in the Age of High-Quality Recordings
Occasionally when I'm at a concert, I hear people remark that the performance
"wasn't like the CD". These comments seem tinged with disappointment, suggesting
that the listeners were expecting a pristine performance identical to the high-quality
CD on their bookshelf at home.
I love the excitement of live music - and the whole concert-going experience, from
the moment I arrive at the venue and join the throng of people in the foyer or bar, the
air full of that eager hum of expectancy, and all the little "rituals" of concert-going:
meeting friends, discussing the music we're about to hear, slipping into the plush
seats. Then the house lights dim and the adventure that is a live performance begins.
Each performance is different, and it is this very uniqueness that makes live music so
These days it is almost de rigeur
to find CDs by the featured artist for sale at the
concert. For many people, these recordings are a way of keeping the memory of the
concert alive, purchasing a "souvenir" to take home, or another recording to add to a
At the turn of the twentieth century, at a time when recordings were relatively scarce,
the activity of concert going was confined to a relatively small minority of cultured
people (the Proms were conceived to bring classical music to a wider audience and
to make music more accessible) and the symphonies of Beethoven, for example,
could be heard only in a select few concert halls. And because of the scarcity of
recordings, performers enjoyed much more freedom in the way they rehearsed,
presented and performed the music. For example, encores were often given between
the movements of a symphony: audiences demanded encores, and received them,
and there was nearly always applause between movements (a cardinal sin of concert
etiquette these days). With few or no recordings to bolster their career, performers
made their living from, well, performing.
Since the middle of the twentieth century, recording technology has grown ever more
sophisticated, allowing artists and orchestras to create performances which are
almost alien to the performance in the concert hall. Alongside this, a certain
"globalisation" of sound has emerged, if all the rough edges and distinctive national
traits of earlier performers and performances have been smoothed out, and even so-
called "live" performances are subject to editing and touching up.
offered us some interesting insights into the craft, and craftiness, of the editor.)
Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov insists that all his recordings (and he has made
relatively few during his long career) are genuinely live - one concert, one take,
ensuring that no two recordings are ever the same and retaining, as far as possible,
the spontaneity of his live performances.
With the rise of high-quality recordings, and the ease with which they could be
obtained, performers, ensembles and orchestras were forced to abandon the rather
laissez-faire attitude to rehearsing and performing that had existed in an earlier age –
because now they had quality recordings to provide them with feedback. Now they
could assess not only their own playing but also compare performances of the same
works by other performers around the world, and certain recordings by certain
orchestras/conductors/soloists have become regarded as the benchmark against
which other recordings and performances are measured. This standardisation of
sound meant that audiences demanded the same high-quality sound in live
performances, and performers have been forced to adopt higher standards of
technical facility, accuracy, consistency of presentation and expressive focus that
were unknown in the first half of the twentieth century.
This, of course, is no bad thing, and the quality of music one can hear on any given
night in any concert hall around the world these days is testament to the high
standards performers now set themselves, and similarly high standards demanded
by audiences and consumers of quality recordings. But it has also led, in my opinion,
to a desire by certain audience members to expect to hear an exact recreation of a
recording in a live performance - something which is, of course, impossible, for no
two live performances are ever the same.
Recordings and live performances are two very separate entities, and should be
regarded as such. Many classical performers find the recording studio a difficult
place to be as it robs them of the spontaneity that comes from performing to an
audience. Curiously, many performers also find recording more nerve-wracking than
live performing, even though they have the “safety net” of the editing process to
remove errors and inconsistencies. Compare this with Glenn Gould who resented
“the one-timeness, or the non-take-twoness, of the live concert experience”. He
famously stopped giving live concerts in 1964, believing his artistry was better served
by committing his music to recordings.
Now, with so much technology available to manipulate sound, classical performers
working with skilled producers and editors are able to produce more experimental or
“hyper” recordings – something I think Glenn Gould would have enjoyed, given his
interest in the recording process and the ability to make creative choices by selecting
particular “takes” for inclusion in a recording.
Hyper-Production mix of Debussy's 'La Cathedrale Egloutie' Preludes Book 1 No. 10 from LCM Video on Vimeo.
With the increasing popularity and ease of access of platforms such as YouTube and
music streaming services, it is now possible to hear vintage recordings of composers
performing their own works (there are wonderful archive recordings of Rachmaninoff
and Ravel playing their own piano music, for example) and to recapture the sounds
of an earlier age.
Performing Music in the Age of Recording - Robert Philip
Frances Wilson is a London-based pianist, piano
teacher, concert reviewer and blogger on music
and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist.
She is a reviewer for international concert and
opera listings site Bachtrack.com,
and contributes art and exhibition reviews
to US-based culture and art site CultureVulture.
She writes a regular column on aspects
of piano playing for ‘Pianist’ magazine’s online
content, and contributes guest articles to
a number of classical music websites around the world.