Magazine article The Spectator

Finding Fault with Perfection

Magazine article The Spectator

Finding Fault with Perfection

Article excerpt

Recently, while listening to a recording of a Bruckner symphony, made at a live concert half a century ago, I experienced a level of artistic engagement scarcely to be met in the modern world. Because the players, the conductor and the audience shared a mental and spiritual approach to musical performance, they were united on a journey across an orchestral landscape recognisable to the composer. Such an approach had been in place for centuries, and was based on the belief that music, the most ephemeral of the arts, could not be trapped in a flask and processed until its imperfections had gone, as though it were some sort of industrial product.

Until compact discs came along, few people would have sat in a hall logging mistakes, as many do today, as though the presence of such things were an abomination. The players would have been aware of their own fallibilities, and would have accepted any slips of technique as being the inevitable consequence of their own humanity, leaving their minds to focus on the potential for expression which lies at the heart of all great music. Today, in performances of classical music, whether live or on disc, the avoidance of technical error has become paramount. Indeed, it is virtually the only artistic policy on offer.

Before the 1970s, the proposition that the unchanging message of a recording could be superior to the artistic variabilities of the concert hall would have found few takers. But, by the time a new generation of performers had emerged, which accepted without question the synthetic demands of the recording studio, including the engineers' ability to replace questionable passages with better parts from another 'take', music had been transformed into a commodity, a manufactured product; one whose raison d'etre was purely commercial.

Such editing, although highly skilled, was restricted by the crudity of the process, so that recordings of the 1960s, and even the 1970s, were still mostly assembled from a number of complete performances of a particular work. Not any more. By removing virtually all the barriers between the music and its apparently perfect rendition, the arrival of CD digital technology changed all that. From now on, the finished product would bear little comparison with the original performances. Hence the recording producer's joke: `The artist played all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order.'

Today, with shocking ease, single notes may be removed and replaced, or the edges of a chord softened or brightened, at will. Nonentities are made to sound more technically assured than many of the greatest artists, who often cannot be bothered with such detail, but who can play their instruments in public at the highest level. Recording people will go to any lengths to deliver a 'flawless' product to the shops. A couple of years ago, I was shocked to be told by one of our leading recording engineers that he would cover any mistake, which had slipped through the recording producer's net, by buying half a dozen CDs of the same music and patching it with a segment from the one which most nearly matched his own recording.

Matters have also deteriorated in the studio itself. Many of the younger breed of recording producer, desperate to deliver a product as close to the written text as possible, and free of mistakes, write their edit points into the score ahead of the recording. Guided by the click of the producer's metronome, the players repeat 20 or 30 bars until `they get them right'. Moving at a snail's pace they progress (if that's the right word) to the end of the piece at a constancy of tempo which drives out any sense of the journey in the composer's mind, and which once formed a major part of the appreciation of musical performance. …

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