26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 51


Finding fault with perfection

John Boyden argues that modern recordings are destroying great music 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 mis- takes, as many do today, as though the presence of such things were an abomina- tion. 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 per- formances of classical music, whether live or on disc, the avoidance of technical error has become paramount. Indeed, it is virtu- ally 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 accept- ed without question the synthetic demands of the recording studio, including the engi- neers' ability to replace questionable pas- sages with better parts from another 'take', music had been transformed into a com- modity, 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 remov- ing 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 necessar- ily 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 tech- nically assured than many of the greatest artists, who often cannot be bothered with such detail, but who can play their instru- ments 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 engi- neers 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 stu- dio itself. Many of the younger breed of recording producer, desperate to deliver a product as close to the written text as pos- sible, and free of mistakes, write their edit points into the score ahead of the record- ing. 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 constan- cy 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.

Weeks or months later these segments are knitted together into a seamless whole, leaving the producer happy, because he exercised his control over the entire pro- cess, the artist happy, because he now sounds infallible and the record company happy, because it has another CD pretty well certain of critical approval. But where `Trouble with relaxing I see?' did the music go? Might it be because the very soul of the performer has been removed, as though by plastic surgery, so that the nooks and crannies of an individu- al's face have been smoothed away by tech- nology to produce a figure which looks human at a distance, but which, when seen close up, has all the humanity of a tailor's dummy?

Before the unbending figure of the metronome-dictated tempo, and during the time when (arguably) the greatest music was being composed, tempo was taken from the pulse. When the music became exciting, the pulse raced; when it slackened the music followed suit. Such differences, which players and audiences loved, and which encouraged individuality, have been ironed out of contemporary performances.

Last year, Christian Thielemann was slapped down for daring to deviate from the established norm. Many critics found his adjustments of tempo too much for their tastes, even though his flexibility was small, by historic standards. Such analysts seem to see the score as an undeviating blueprint. But, if that is the case, why bother to make a new recording of a work from the stan- dard repertory? Or mount a concert?

Recordings used to be snapshots of a real event, warts and all. No longer. Their modem equivalents, dominated by almost limitless technology, are little more than retouching exercises in public relations, much as women film stars are shot through filters, or Soviet presidents had their birth- marks removed. It is as though we should prefer a retouched photograph of a person to his living presence.

Recordings have become so powerful a medium that concerts now imitate records. Some years ago, I produced a recording in which I was forced to join the tape at an awkward spot and introduce an awkward change of tempo. I was bothered that the incoming tempo didn't quite match the outgoing, although no critic ever picked it up. But, a year later, I was far more upset when I heard the same conductor and orchestra imitate the edit in public. Anoth- er conductor once asked me whether I wanted the ending to a Brahms Symphony `like Toscanini did it, or Klemperer, or . . . ?' I suggested he try doing it the way he imagined Brahms wanted it.

Great works of art have been turned into a manufactured product. Most music critics are obsessed with bad ensemble, poor into- nation and deviations from the text; they are better qualified for the quality control department at Dagenham, than as arbiters of taste and human expression. It is my belief that the combination of recording and radio has made commonplace what should be exceptional, and that the so- called errors in great performances are as integral to their message s the apparent faults to a hand-thrown pot. Now, if you want your cups made from flawless plastic that's fine by me, but don't expect me to like it; or to keep quiet about it, when music is treated in the same way.

John Boyden is artistic director of New Queen's Hall Orchestra, which is giving con- certs at the Barbican on 8 and 21 December.