Monday, 18 August 2008

Permanent ink, indelible performances

I’m not going to suggest that written music criticism (and certainly not mine, if you’re nice enough to let me call it that in the first place) is, or even should be, permanent. Some does last, of course, and we re-read it to grasp a flavour of an historic performance, or interpretation (Cardus?) or for its literary style (Shaw?). Or maybe, in the case of one more current standard-bearer, just schadenfreude . . .

What has struck me fairly forcibly again this year, pace Paul Daniel’s comment I quoted earlier, is how often people appear to confuse live performance with recorded performance. They are two entirely different things. Even when a live performance is recorded, it is rare now for even a ‘live recording’ not actually to be in fact the product of more than one performance and even a rehearsal or two. A recording is generally treated as if it is to be permanent, repeatable, historic record. Sorry about the pun, I can’t get around it.

A concert is simply the product of the circumstances of the time it was performed. In that sense, it is impermanent, ephemeral, of the moment. We might remember it, if it is particularly rare, innovatory, well-played, or just jibed well with our own mood at the time, but it is wrong to treat it as though it should be preserved even if we’ve recorded it ourselves.

Two things in a lot of writing about the Proms (particularly on the R3 Message Board this year) have struck me as being, in this context, a little foolish and mistaken. One is to criticise a live performance as though it should achieve the equivalent of the perfection that can be obtained technically in a studio recording. There a cracked horn, an early entry, can be replaced or corrected. It can’t be in a live performance, and I don’t see why people should make a fuss about it when it happens.

If you hear that on a recording, well, of course, that is unprofessional: simply because it’s meant to be heard more than once, and will become irritating the second hearing, infuriating the third, intolerable after that. In a live performance, we wince for a second, then it’s over and done with. It’s only worth bothering about if it is emblematic of generally sloppy playing, conducting, or poor ensemble. And even then, the quality of the interpretation, or the music's rarity, can make it forgiveable.

So I think, to come to the second, constant comparisons between Prom performances and recordings are mistaken, even pointless. As is the underlying assumption that every time a conductor and an orchestra performed a certain work, it always must have sounded exactly like a particular recording of it. It’s plain wrong to talk of Toscanini’s X or Furtwangler’s Y in the broad terms many do, when they simply mean W or Z recording. And it’s a way of looking at performance that does the Proms, particularly, a disservice.

Of course, it can be useful, sometimes, to elucidate the ‘sound’ or style of a concert by referring to differences between it and a recording most readers might be presumed to have heard. But that is a very different thing to saying, as I seem to have read often, that so-and-so’s interpretation was rubbish because such-and-such-another’s was the epitome of perfection.

And of course, the ‘perfection’ of a recording, as I’ve hinted, may not actually be all it seems. I’ve known recordings (I’ve been at the sessions) where it would surprise people to hear that the ‘perfection’ was attained through an editing process that amalgamated more than forty takes of just a few bars each (not necessarily even played in the right order!) in a piece that lasted no more than fifteen minutes. The one I’m thinking of was, I was very amused to read when the recording was released, praised for its ‘natural fluidity’, even for having ‘obviously been done in a single take’.

That, of course, is how it should appear. In fact, the chances of any listener finding out any different from hearing a recording made pretty well any time during most of the last two decades are as near zero as makes no difference, thanks to digital editing. I know of another recording where a few bars of percussion were ‘spliced in’ from being recorded long after the sessions in the recording engineer’s garage because of a mistake that couldn’t be corrected at the time.

Both the engineer and I waited with considerable curiosity for a particular critic who frequently complained of hearing ‘bad edits’ to spot it. He didn’t; which is not surprising, because even I, after I’d failed the test (I was up half the night determined I was going to tell the engineer I’d found it at the following afternoon’s session) and was then tipped off to exactly where it was, could never have sworn on the Bible I could actually hear it. . .

Even the BBC isn’t always entirely purist, although they do tend to resort to a little ‘trickery’ only in an emergency. Obviously, they edited out the notorious ‘mobile phone obbligato’ * which drowned the clarinet at the beginning of the Rattle/BPO Rite of Spring for the repeats, but I know of at least one occasion when a recording was actually patched together from two separate performances in different halls with wildly different accoustics and levels, because of a technical problem with the mics during the performance that was intended to be broadcast later. I know of that one, because courtesy of Avid, I was allowed to try my hand at comparing my digital needlework with the BBC’s. . .

So, I’m beginning to feel the force of Paul Daniel’s argument rather the more this year. And, of course, that is why you will seldom read here a list of recordings that are ‘better’ than or even only ‘different’ to the night’s performance. It should I think, be allowed to stand entirely on its own. Comparisons, like trainers, after a while are odorous . . .

* I haven't heard one so far this year (he says crossing his fingers). Perhaps the BBC's pre-concert announcement has finally got through. (I particularly liked the very emphatic, justifiably curt "Please switch OFF your mobile phones" that ran for a couple of seasons.) But I simply cannot understand all those people who cannot bear to stop texting or reading their SMS messages until the second the conductor raises his baton. Nothing in the world can be that urgent. Or of it is, why are they about to spend an hour and a half at a concert?

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