Glenn Gould recording ‘The Goldberg Variations’ at the Columbia Studios in New York in 1955

“The paradox of recording is that it can preserve forever those disappearing moments of sound but never the spark of humanity that generates them” (Alex Ross)

Occasionally when I’m at a concert, I hear people comment that the performance “wasn’t as good as his/her CD”. These comments seem tinged with disappointment, suggesting that the listeners were expecting a pristine performance in a silent-as-the grave venue.

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: buying a programme, having drinks with 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 as the performer crosses the stage, bows to the audience, and takes his/her place at that big shiny black beast of a concert grand. Each performance is different, and it is this very uniqueness that makes live music so special.

Afterwards, when the final note of the last encore has faded and the house lights come up, we make our way out of the venue, sometimes talking excitedly about how wonderful the music was, or quietly digesting what we have just heard. As I wend my way home on the train, I try to retain a memory of the concert, not just of the music, but also the emotions and thoughts I experienced during the performance. If I am writing a review, I inevitably make some notes, just to jog the memory of key points. If I’ve been at a concert with friends, we might email one another the day after to discuss the aspects we really enjoyed (one particular concert-companion is very good at this, and her comments regularly find their way into my reviews and articles). All these things to contribute to the special memory of a live concert.

These days at concerts it is almost de rigeur to find CDs by the featured artist for sale at the performance. For many people, these recordings are, of course, a wonderful way of keeping the memory of the concert alive, purchasing a “souvenir” to take home, or simply buying another recording to add to a cherished collection. More often than not, the soloist is available to talk to/sign CDs afterwards, though I have sometimes had the distinct impression that the soloist would rather be quietly unwinding in the green room, away from people, or heading home for a shower and a good night’s sleep after a particularly effortful or intense performance.

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. Nowadays, the reverse is true, and performing for many performers has become an almost supplementary activity as a way of promoting CD sales, and the general received wisdom in the industry is that successful careers are made through recordings.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, recording technology has grown ever more sophisticated, allowing artists and orchestras to create performances which are quite alien to the performance in the concert hall. Alongside this, a certain “globalisation” of sound has taking place, almost as if all the rough edges and tics and distinctive national traits of earlier performances have been smoothed out, and even so-called “live” performances are subject to a degree of touching up. (‘Hattogate’ offered us some interesting insights into the craft, and craftiness, of the editor.) Incidentally, a performing artist active today, 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. Now they could 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 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 an 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 similar 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 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. It is that spur-of-the moment spontaneity and element of risk that makes live music so exciting.

I have been to many concerts where a world-renowned pianist has fluffed a run or smeared a chord. I have witnessed memory lapses (perhaps the most painful thing to befall a pianist in a live concert), and cover ups for memory lapses. However, I am not the sort of ambulance-chasing concert-goer (and believe me, they exist!) who comes out of the venue glorying in the fact that I have spotted an error. As an occasional performer myself, I know how much these errors can hurt, and how much work one puts in after a performance to exorcise a memory lapse, or mistake. I have rarely felt that an error has “spoilt” a concert: usually the concert experience as a whole was so good, so emotionally engaging, so profound, that any small errors or slips were virtually invisible. Errors remind us that performers are also human, that they – and the music – live and breathe, that passion, involvement, communication, wit and humour rule over absolute perfection. I would far rather hear a performance that had all these very special elements, and the odd error, than a middle-of-the road, perfectly accurate, “safe” or sterile performance. And to those people who demand that kind of smoothed out perfection, I suggest you stay at home and listen to a recording. But beware, you’ll never recreate that excitement, the “aliveness” of the concert hall.

With the advent and increasing popularity of music streaming services such as Spotify, it is now possible to return to earlier recordings to recapture the sounds from another age, and to hear composers performing their own works (Spotify contains some wonderful archive recordings of Rachmaninoff and Ravel playing their own piano music – an incredibly useful resource). Music sharing platforms like SoundCloud offer a twenty-first century version of those early recordings as people post work-in-progress or tracks that were recorded away from the rigours and artificiality of the recording studio (some of my own tracks, recorded at home, have audible birdsong in the background). SoundCloud is also an easy-to-use way of promoting tracks from a new album, giving listeners a “taster” and offering inexpensive new marketing possibilities for performing artists of all genres.

The effect of recording on performers is the subject for a separate blog post.

Further reading

The Record Effect – Alex Ross

Performing Music in the Age of Recording – Robert Philip