A reader writes, apropos of yesterday’s posting on the sorry state of the classical-music concert:
Please don’t do classical music any more favors, Terry. Just go back to your CDs and keep telling yourself that Schnabel is the last word on Beethoven.
Of course there is no “last word” on Beethoven, or any other composer–but after a lifetime of listening to multiple interpretations of the classics, I’m simply not interested in the Latest Version of anything. What I care about is the piece itself, far more than the way any one particular artist happens to play it, and now that each and every piece of standard-rep music has been recorded in multiple versions of very high quality, I find I have very little motivation to go out and hear Op. 111 done in yet another way, however “different” or “original” it might happen to be. Yes, the experience of hearing classical music in live performance is in and of itself worthwhile, but when the environment in which one consumes it has been degraded, I’m not so sure it’s cost-effective (speaking from an aesthetic point of view) to put up with the distractions.
This, by the way, is an unintended consequence of the invention of recording that nobody foresaw a century ago: that it might eventually make public performance obsolete, or at least moribund. It is, however, something that I’ve been writing about for years. Here, for instance, is a column called “No, Never” that I wrote for Fi a decade ago. I was talking about how I was no longer interested in listening to new recordings of the standard repertoire, but the same logic applies to my changing feelings about the institution of the traditional classical concert. It sums up what I think so completely that I’ve decided to post it here rather than trying to say it all again in a different way. I hope it interests you.
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I received in the mail the other day a review copy of a new recording of the Brandenburg Concertos (I won’t say by whom), accompanied by a slightly shamefaced letter from a well-meaning publicist (who shall also remain nameless) suggesting that even though I probably wasn’t interested in listening to yet another recording of the Brandenburg Concertos, this one was worth my while. Candor from a publicist is as refreshing as it is rare, and I was tempted to give the album a listen for that reason alone, but the temptation passed in mere seconds. At the time I was knee-high in review copies, some of which were really interesting, and most of which were at least marginally more interesting than yet another recording of the Brandenburg Concertos. So I dropped the letter in the wastebasket, placed the CD atop my burgeoning giveaway pile, and meditated, not for the first time, on the folly of re-recording the classics.
What is it that causes an otherwise sensible musician to conclude that the world is waiting breathlessly for him to reduce to digits his interpretation of a score that has already been recorded twenty times or more? Presumably vanity has a little something to do with it, and so does youth–it never ceases to amaze me how many younger classical musicians, singers in particular, don’t listen to other people’s records–but two other reasons worthy of closer scrutiny come to mind:
• Musicians re-record familiar pieces of music because they think they have something new to say about them that is worthy of preservation and promulgation.
• Musicians also make records to make money, and historically speaking, the standard repertoire has always been what sold best.
I’ll come back to the second reason in a moment, but for now let me concentrate on the desire of artists to document their interpretations for posterity, which is almost as old as the invention of a means of doing so–that’s why we call records records–and which is, I think, perfectly understandable, if not always forgivable. When Adelina Patti heard the playback of her first 78, she exclaimed, “Ah, my God! Now I understand why I am Patti! Oh, yes! What a voice! What an artist! I understand everything!” I doubt anyone since then has responded quite so effusively to her records (she made them when she was sixty-two years old, a bit late in the game for a coloratura), but it’s important to remember that they date from 1905, prior to which time the most celebrated soprano of the nineteenth century had never before heard the sound of her own voice. Being a diva, Madame Patti no doubt instantly took it for granted that opera buffs as yet unborn would want to hear it, too, and sure enough, the old girl was right.
Save for a few eccentric holdouts, classical musicians have from that day to this made as many records as possible, more than a few of which have proved to be of permanent interest. But most of the records made between 1900 and the day before yesterday are either forgotten or soon will be. Posterity is ruthless, and only remembers the best of the best, rave reviews and impressive sales figures notwithstanding. My record collection is a time-lapse simulation of posterity, for I’ve lived in six different apartments in the past quarter-century, and thus have had to be scrupulous about disposing of review copies that I thought were less than indispensable. You’d be surprised at how many CDs I’ve given away over the years, and how few I’ve kept.
To be sure, there are certain works of which I’ve accumulated a reasonably large number of recorded versions, but very few of them were composed prior to 1800. This isn’t because I don’t like pre-romantic music, but because I don’t find it all that rewarding to compare different interpretations of music written before the dawn of romantic subjectivity. Take the Brandenburg Concertos: I love them passionately, but find it quite possible to scrape along with only four complete sets, the ones conducted by Adolf Busch, Benjamin Britten, Raymond Leppard, and Trevor Pinnock. The Busch, Leppard, and Pinnock sets represent the three major phases to date of evolution in the interpretation of eighteenth-century music (as well as recording technology), while Britten’s version earns its place on my shelf by virtue of its status as a wild card–a performance by one great composer of the music of another great composer. As far as I’m concerned, that’s enough. Interpretatively speaking, what is there to say about the Brandenburgs that Busch, Britten, Leppard, and Pinnock haven’t already said?
I fully expect to be bombarded with letters about that last sentence, some friendly and some obnoxious, but to all of you who are even now booting up your computers, I urge you not to waste your time trying to change my mind. I’ve been listening to the Brandenburgs ever since I was a teenager–I’ve even played a few of them, on violin, viola, bass, and in Max Reger’s wonderful four-hand piano arrangements–and I long ago decided that immortal though they are, they don’t lend themselves to idiosyncratic interpretation. To my mind, the way to play them is beautifully, briskly, and straightforwardly, and between them, my four complete sets cover all the interpretative possibilities I’m interested in experiencing. Anything beyond that is hair-splitting or perversity.
I hasten to point out that this rule of thumb doesn’t necessarily apply to nineteenth-century music, in which the performer’s personality can and should play a much larger role in the shaping of his interpretations. I’ve held onto nine of the many recorded versions of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto that have passed through my hands over the years: Cliburn/Reiner, Fischer/Furtwängler, Fleisher/Szell, Gilels/Jochum, Horowitz/Toscanini, Richter/Leinsdorf, Rubinstein/Coates, Schnabel/Boult, and Solomon/Dobrowen. But even that list barely begins to scratch the surface–the last time I looked, there were forty different Brahms Seconds in print–and I wonder just how much I’m likely to get out of any of the new versions that continue to turn up in my mailbox on an annoyingly regular basis.
It so happens that I have reached the time of life when you start wondering when you’re going to die, and thinking about what you want to do between now and then. There is a great line about this in Cardinal Newman’s Dream of Gerontius, the poem set to music so eloquently by Sir Edward Elgar: “And, ere afresh the ruin on me fall,/Use well the interval.” Especially given the fact that we now live in an age when new music has finally gotten good again, I am less and less inclined to use that interval writing about new recordings of old warhorses. I’d much rather hear a piece of music I’ve never heard than a new recording of the Brandenburgs, no matter how good it is. This isn’t to say I can’t be surprised, even by baroque music–I still remember how much unexpected pleasure I got out of Gil Shaham’s recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons–but there comes a time when the smart man starts following the odds, and in my experience, the odds are that there aren’t going to be any more recordings of the Brandenburgs that I really, truly need to hear.
I’m not the only person who’s made this discovery, of course: so have most of the smart A&R people at the major classical labels, who are grimly aware that new recordings of the standard repertoire have fallen victim to the law of diminishing returns. I talked not long ago to a young soprano who is very famous, very intelligent, and very realistic, and she told me matter-of-factly that given the current climate of opinion at her label, she didn’t expect to record very many of her roles; instead, she intends to stick to imaginatively planned recital discs that have a chance of selling a respectable number of copies. I think she’s onto something, and I wish more artists of her generation felt the same way.
I also wish more of today’s big-name performers would start taking a closer look at the accessible, attractive music of our time. Until very recently, the surest way for a performer to make it into the history books was not to play old music better than anybody else, but to seek out and perform first-rate new music. I wouldn’t be greatly surprised if some of Serge Koussevitzky’s recordings are still being played a hundred years from now, but even if they aren’t, he’ll still be remembered for having premiered the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, a piece he didn’t even bother to record commercially. Good performers are never as important as good composers. The best ones know it, and act accordingly.
As for me, I am drawing my personal line in the sand here and now: I do solemnly swear that I will never again review a new recording of the complete Brandenburg Concertos. If you want to get my attention, you’ll have to think of another way, preferably not involving plastic explosives. Furthermore, I have every intention of regularly adding other warhorses to my do-not-resuscitate list, so if you want to know what I think of your upcoming recording of Eine kleine Nachtmusik, you’d better get on the stick. I’m sure this decision will cause me to miss out on something good–probably even several hundred somethings–but I don’t expect to lose any sleep over it. If God had meant me to spend the middle of my journey writing comparison reviews of two dozen different versions of the Eroica, He would have given me more patience, a bigger apartment, and a longer life.