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Live Music versus Recordings
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Bits and Pieces

This article explores the relative merits of hearing music live and listening to recorded music at home. It is based on my own experiences so I exclusively use classical music for my examples, but the general points I make apply to many other forms of music.

Several years ago I was very tickled by a cartoon I saw in a hi-fi magazine. This was in pre-Internet days and I haven’t been able to track it down, so if anyone can find it I’d be very grateful. The cartoon depicted a geeky, anorak type asking a hi-fi salesman:

“Have you got anything that sounds better than the real thing?”

No doubt it raised quite a few chuckles, though I can imagine some of those chuckles being a bit forced. “Yes, very funny, of course I’ve never thought audio sounds better than the real thing. Oh, wait a minute…”

Any readers of that (or any) hi-fi magazine who may have felt themselves to be the target of the joke will most likely be audiophiles. Let’s deal with audiophiles before we move on.

Although I have spent considerably more time and money on my hi-fi system than most people would consider normal, I don’t call myself an audiophile. This is for two reasons. The first is that I don’t want to suffer the same fate as the paediatrician whose home was vandalised by tabloid-reading morons. The second is that my approach to home listening doesn’t fit the common perception of what an audiophile actually is.

My dictionary defines audiophile as an enthusiast for the true reproduction of recorded or broadcast sound. Nothing wrong with that of course, but many people think of audiophiles, with some justification, as being people who use music to listen to their hi-fi, as opposed to using their hi-fi to listen to music. I’ll admit that when I upgrade a component, such as an amplifier or pair of speakers, I do evaluate the new component while I’m listening. That’s only natural. But once the novelty value has worn off, the music goes back to being the one and only boss. I never cease to be grateful that I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford decent equipment, but when I put on a piece of music it’s because I want to listen to Mozart or Beethoven or Wagner or whatever, and to hear the musicians’ interpretation of it, rather than to revel in my ownership of electronic equipment.

In addition, I believe that performance should always be more important than the recorded sound when choosing a recording, so long as the sound is at least adequate (and with modern stereo recordings, it invariably is). Given two performances of equal merit, with nothing to choose between them, I’ll obviously go for the better recording. That’s a no-brainer. But given the choice between an excellent recording of a mediocre performance and a mediocre recording of an excellent performance, I’ll choose the latter every time.

Audiophiles do come in for a certain amount of mockery, not least because some of them fall for the most ridiculous myths and scams in the quest for audio perfection. These range from the harmless (colouring your CDs with green marker pen) to the fraudulent (you can buy a set of pebbles which you place somewhere in your room, and these can set you back up to £100!). As it happens, I prefer not to jump on the trendy bandwagon of jeering at people with unusual or “nerdy” hobbies, and even if some audiophiles are essentially boys with their toys, I’ll take that any day over the anti-social prats who can’t tear themselves away from playing with their bloody smartphones and other toys in public.

Going back to the original premise of “better than the real thing”, the statement is, on the face of it, nonsense, which is why it’s funny. It’s like suggesting that a photograph of someone looks more like that person than the actual person does. And yet…

We’ve all seen carefully posed photographs of glamour models and celebrities, and wondered if they really look as good as that in real life. The answer is that most of them don’t. A skilful photographer can make the most ordinary people look very good in a photograph (not me, alas – some cases really are hopeless). The photo is not “better” in the sense that it’s more real than the real thing, but it looks better.

No recording, however good it is and however good your equipment, can sound more real than the real thing. But it can sometimes give the illusion of sounding better. Here’s an example.

For many years, the only performance of Mahler’s massive Eighth Symphony I ever heard was Solti’s recording on the Decca label. This was (and still is) one of Decca’s best recordings, in which the engineers do a marvellous job of bringing out instrumental detail from the gargantuan forces involved. The recording really comes at you and makes an enormous impact, and if you turn it up to a reasonable level you’d better hope that your neighbours are deaf or, at least, don’t possess a shotgun.

Some time in the early 80s I got tickets for a performance of this work at the Albert Hall. Sir Colin Davis, a fine conductor, was at the helm and huge forces were amassed for the performance. Now, as regular concertgoers will know, the Albert Hall’s acoustics are awful; the only places you can get halfway decent sound are right at the front and about five other seats dotted randomly around the hall. I was not in any of these, and despite the huge orchestra and various choirs evidently straining to make as much noise as possible where appropriate, it all sounded very distant and the awe that this symphony should inspire was missing from where I was sitting. I was disappointed, as you would expect, not least because I had to admit reluctantly that I had enjoyed it less than listening to the recording. (I’ve seen a few performances of Mahler 8 since in better conditions and, I’m glad to say, the experience was totally different.) The point being, that in this case the recording sounded “better” than the real thing.

I remember that when I’d started to buy what is generally known as high-end hi-fi, people – some of them discerning musicians – said to me things like “You know, it never sounds like that in the opera house.” That, of course, can be taken two ways. It doesn’t sound like that in the opera house because what you hear in the opera house is real and the recording isn’t; but what they meant was that you never get hit as forcefully by baying horns or thunderous drums if you’re sitting way back and way up high in the opera house in the only seats you can afford.

When Decca recorded its pioneering Ring cycle, with the talented engineer John Culshaw in charge of sound, people were able to hear Wagner as never before. You got every detail of the score, and the climaxes leaped out at you from your speakers. It is not real or even realistic in the sense that you will never hear that amount of close-up, immediate detail unless you can afford the best seats in the opera house. Predictably, there are snobs who dismiss the Solti Ring as “in-yer-face” and “gimmicky” and “Hollywood Wagner”, but although I personally prefer the Goodall performances, I think it’s safe to say that the Solti has made more converts to Wagner than any other recording has or will.

So yes, there are cases where a recording can, in a sense, sound “better” than a live performance. As I’ve said, it’s an illusion, and it’s also relatively rare. I’ve given the examples of a hall with notoriously bad acoustics and of sitting at the back of a cavernous opera house, but of course these are extreme examples. There are many concert halls with excellent acoustics: for example you get superb sound wherever you sit in the Birmingham concert hall. Most seats in the Festival Hall and Barbican offer very good sound too, as do many opera houses around the world (not least the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, although unless you’re persistent you’re as likely to get tickets as you are to find an honest politician). If you attend a performance at any of these, you will be unable to “better” it by listening to the same piece at home. But what about rephrasing the original question:

“Have you got anything that sounds as good as the real thing?”

If the hi-fi salesman is honest, he’ll answer with one word.

No.

Even if you have speakers the size of skyscrapers and an amplifier that produces enough watts to power a city, there will be some loss of quality from the original; from the recording itself, the equipment you’re using, and from the acoustics of your room. The better your system, the closer you’ll get, and small-scale recordings (a piano trio, say) will sound uncannily like the live event. But it will never be quite the same, and if the sensible home listener accepts that, he or she will get great pleasure from recorded music. Those who constantly worry that true perfect reproduction is only just around the corner will never be satisfied, and would probably be better off spending their money on live events.

All sorts of claims have been made over the years. Incredibly, it was claimed at the beginning of the last century that people could not distinguish between a real performance and a phonograph recording. At least Thomas Edison, the inventor, was honest enough to admit that “people will hear what you tell them to hear” – a maxim which holds true today. In more recent times, a well-known manufacturer of cassette tapes based their advertisements on the idea of “Is it live or is it Memorex?” They were smart to phrase it as a question to avoid accusations of false claims.

If the live versus recorded issue centred only on audio quality, the merits of each would be fairly evenly balanced. One might even conclude that the loss in sonic realism you get on a hi-fi system is more than compensated for by the comforts afforded by listening at home. After all, there are plenty of things you can do in your living room that you can’t do in the concert hall. You can sing along if you get carried away by the music. You can “conduct” the orchestra. You can have a glass or two of your favourite tipple, enjoy a cigarette, and if the mood takes you, you can break wind loudly and scratch your nether regions (though preferably not all at the same time). Most of all, at home you have nothing to fear from the dreaded bladder twinges that can spoil enjoyment of a live event.

But of course there’s far more to live music than audio. Home listening can’t reproduce the thrill of seeing and hearing musicians actually performing in front of you. A live performance is unique; no two performances can ever be exactly the same. Even if a performance is recorded for posterity, what you hear on the recording is still a one-off event. A live performance is spontaneous and unpredictable. Will the soprano hit her top C? Will the horns get through that exposed passage without cracking? How will the violinist tackle that fiendish cadenza? There’s also a visual element that adds to the thrill of a live performance. This is obvious in the case of opera, but it applies to concerts too: the glint of the brass as they blast out, the sight of a sea of strings playing for all they’re worth, or the spectacle of a battery of percussion instruments in full cry. On the other end of the scale you see the close interaction between the members of a chamber group. Yes, you can see all these things on a DVD or televised performance, but you can’t feel them if the musicians aren’t present in front of you.

What’s more, there is a sense of occasion which is absent on a recording, however good it may be. It’s one thing to listen to your favourite conductors, soloists and orchestras on disc, but nobody who seriously appreciates music can deny that having these great musicians actually making music in your presence is a much more rewarding experience. Part of it, I suppose, is the sense of achievement of adding to a collection (of the performers you’ve seen live) but there is far more to it than that. It’s difficult to express without sounding incredibly pretentious so I’ll use this analogy – how many cricket fans would honestly claim that watching an exciting Ashes Test series on the telly is as involving as actually being there?

I am fortunate to have attended many great musical events over the years. Three stand out as exceptional occasions. The first was when Herbert von Karajan performed at the Festival Hall in 1985. The atmosphere was one of hushed reverence as Karajan, by then a frail old man, made his slow way to the podium and gave the most majestic performances of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben that anyone is likely to hear in this lifetime. The concert later came out on CD and of course I own a copy, but while it is a useful reminder of how good the concert was, it can’t in any way recreate the way that with a minimum of movement, Karajan got the Berlin Philharmonic to make a massive sound that seemed to defy the laws of physics.

The second was when Klaus Tennstedt, after recovering from a potentially fatal illness, returned to the Festival Hall in 1989 to conduct Mahler’s Second Symphony (the Resurrection). I had his recording of the symphony and loved his interpretation, but that was nothing to what he achieved on stage that night. His experiences had deepened his view of the piece even further, and by the end many of those present were in tears. It was as if he was conducting his own resurrection, and it was a long time before I played my recording after that, because the recorded medium seemed so inadequate in comparison to what I had heard that special evening.

My last example is the series of concerts given by Mstislav Rostropovich and the LSO in 1998, devoted to the complete symphonies of Shostakovich. Rostropovich was not really a great conductor, but he was a fine musician and knew Shostakovich’s music like no other (he was a friend of the composer). He was also a man of integrity and great courage who defied the Communists, and he inspired such respect in the LSO that these performances were incredibly moving, in a way that it would be impossible to recreate listening at home. (Some hack at the Times called it “tired old programming” – there’s always one.)

I have mentioned the audience as part of the experience and the importance of an appreciative audience is not to be underestimated. Sitting in front of a hi-fi at home, you miss that sense of kinship with those around you, with whom you are sharing the experience of hearing music-making. I think that’s pretty obvious, but I’ll give one example of where being in a room with other listeners made a concert even more special than it already was. I attended a recital by my favourite soprano of all time, Lucia Popp, at the newly-opened Barbican Centre in (I think) 1982. I’d never been there before and I damn nearly arrived late as I got lost trying to find the hall! When we got to the encores (which are often the best bit of a Lieder recital) she announced that she was going to sing Allerseelen (All Souls’ Day) by Richard Strauss, which is one of his loveliest songs. The young guy sitting next to me had, like all of us, been sitting rapt as this wonderful, beautiful singer – who tragically died far too young – performed the main part of the programme; but at this announcement he could contain his joy no longer. He punched the air and shouted YEAH! I knew exactly how he felt.

As you can see from the foregoing I, like many music-lovers, firmly believe that recordings can never fully replicate the best aspects of live performances, however advanced audio technology becomes. That’s not to say that listening to music at home is a bad thing; far from it. Recordings offer the chance to hear rare music that you will seldom, if ever, see performed live. Thanks to recorded music, you can get to know pieces far better than you otherwise would, so you understand and enjoy them more when you do get to see them live. Perhaps the best thing about recordings is that performances from great musicians from the past are preserved for ever; we can still enjoy the performances of Karajan, Solti, Birgit Nilsson, Fischer-Dieskau, Pavarotti, Jacqueline du Pré, Rostropovich and many, many others who have made invaluable contributions to music. There is no reason why live music and recorded music shouldn’t complement each other, and for most listeners, they do just that.

That just about wraps up the discussion, but there is one final point I’d like to make which, if the number of articles online is any guide, will resonate with many people who attend live musical events. It’s going to be a bit of a rant, I’m afraid, but then it is a subject about which I feel very strongly and I know others do too.

Back in a previous life, I must have done something quite bad, like stealing a chariot or mistreating some serfs. The gods have decided to punish me in this life, and the punishment they have decreed is that if there is someone at a concert or opera who’s going to be a nuisance, that person will always be sitting near me. I’m well aware that by writing about this I’m going to look like the sort of sour old grump who delights in shushing people at the theatre, but I deny that I am. For example, I’m usually a good sport about coughing, so long as people show a bit of humility and try to do it as quietly as possible. People can’t help coughing and I know I’ve done it myself at musical events from time to time. Yes, it’s annoying, but it happens and there’s not a lot that one can do about it.

On the other hand, there is something people can do about jangling bangles, noisy sweet wrappers, and rustly bags. People don’t need to flip loudly through their programmes. I’ve sat next to people who have spent the entire act of an opera scrunching up paper. Now, one might suggest that if I love music as much as I claim to, I wouldn’t let these things distract me, or even notice them at all. It is possible to ignore these things sometimes, but if the musicians are playing a very quiet piece that requires absolute concentration, the crinkling of someone taking five minutes to unwrap a sweet will break the mood. In fairness, these people usually are unaware that they’re being annoying and a polite word can often resolve the issue, but doing this while the music’s playing causes even more disturbance so you may well have to endure unwanted sound effects through an entire piece.

Even at the Bayreuth Festival, I sat next to someone who was clearly bored and fidgeted all the way through the performance. Every time he moved, he elicited a frrrp-frrrp sound out of his programme. I’ve already said it’s practically impossible to get tickets for Bayreuth, so why would anyone bother if they weren’t interested in Wagner? It’s like going to endless trouble to get a ticket for the Cup Final even though you hate football.

There are still worse things that people can do to disrupt musical events. Talking is one of them. There are basically only three things, or variants thereof, that are permissible to say while musicians are playing.

  1. My leg’s fallen off. Go and get medical help!
  2. Those flames coming from the Dress Circle aren’t part of the show, right?
  3. Why am I sitting knee-deep in water?

That’s it. Unless life and limb are under threat, there is absolutely NOTHING that needs to be said during the performance. It’s disrespectful to both the musicians and those sitting nearby, and anyone who breaks this basic rule of common politeness should be punished very, very severely. The trouble is that I’m an old softie who tends towards leniency, so I would show them some mercy by making it a quick death.

As for people whose mobile phones ring – and worse still, those people who actually answer them – I dare not write what I would do to them for fear of being arrested and detained for psychological evaluation. Pretty well every venue I have been to has a polite announcement before the performance starts, which asks you to turn off your mobile phone. To be fair, most people do just that, and you often see your fellow audience members double- and even triple-checking that their phones really are off. Good for them, and they’d probably have done it anyway, even without the announcement.

But what of those bell-ends who don’t? Which part of “please turn off your mobile telephones” don’t they understand? Do they think they’re so important that the world will end if they can’t take a call for a couple of hours? Or are they so cretinous that they really don’t know how to turn the damn things off?

Back in January 2012, an incident in New York made the headlines, not just in America but around the world. During the quiet, moving final bars of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, a mobile rang... and rang… and rang. The conductor, Alan Gilbert, stopped the New York Philharmonic’s performance and confronted the offender, and only resumed once peace had been restored. One might question Gilbert’s decision on musical grounds, but at least it opened up the debate and plenty of people took to Internet forums to say that they were fed up with these interruptions and to ask for mobile signals to be blocked in such venues. It’s an excellent idea that should have been implemented years ago, but there were a few bleeding hearts who opposed it. What if there’s a doctor in the audience who’s on call? Or someone else who’s expecting an emergency call? Well, the answer to that is quite simple:

They shouldn’t be at the bloody performance.

What’s more, some flout the standards of common courtesy quite blatantly because they can’t go five minutes without writing some inane rubbish on Twitbook. In response, San Francisco Opera have introduced “tweet seats”. I am not making that up, I promise, though I really, really wish I were.

No doubt I have, by writing this last section, confirmed the views of those who believe that classical music lovers are “stuffy” and “elitist” and all the other things we get called by the “modernisers” who want to take us back to what musical events were like before Brahms’s time. Yes, you read that correctly. There are commentators on music who, despite appearing to be quite intelligent, have got the daft idea that today’s “yoof” would flock to see Mozart and Beethoven and Bruckner and Verdi in their droves if only they were allowed to eat, walk around, chat among themselves, cheer whenever they wanted to, and to do anything else that doesn’t involve actually listening to the music being played. Just like they did a couple of centuries ago. Let’s try that one out.

“Hey Baz, wotcha doin’ tonight? You goin’ clubbin’ innit?”
“Nah Gaz, I’m goin’ to Covent Garden to see Götterdämmerung by wossname. You can eat an’ drink an’ talk there, y’know.”
“But you can eat an’ drink an’ talk at the club an’ it don’t cost nuffin’ like as much!”
“Oh yeah…”

Despite the occasional displays of selfish behaviour from a few morons, today’s audiences are far, far better behaved than they were in Beethoven’s time. Over the years I’ve been to hundreds of concerts, operas, and recitals, and although a few of them have been spoiled to some degree by the things I’ve ranted about above, the great majority have not. As I said earlier, audiences can and usually do make a positive contribution to live music. If the “modernisers” ever did get their way, the result would be catastrophic. Back in the old days, the only way people could hear music was to see it performed live, so true music lovers would have put up with chatter and people moving about because they had no alternative. Now they have, and I’d bet my house that if disruption and background noise from the audience were to become the norm rather than an occasional nuisance, most music lovers would stick to listening at home, as would I. That would mean closures all round and articles about live music versus recordings would become redundant, because there would be practically no live music to speak of.