The Price Of Perfection Classic dilemma: Recordings have brought perfection to classical music, but also a perfectionist mentality. Spontaneity is being replaced by a dangerous emphasis on minutiae.

Records were created to make musical performances immortal. But after almost 100 years of memorializing classical music's past, records are now in the late stages of destroying its future.

Recording transformed musical performance from a one-of-a-kind event into something permanent and repeatable. The masterpieces of the past, previously available only in concert, became easily accessible. Constant repetition of these works -- in the home, in the car and on Walkmans -- has robbed them of their magic. Works in the standard repertory are now so familiar that performers and audiences find it next to impossible to discover anything fresh.


But musicians keep trying, concentrating their efforts on music's minutiae rather than its sweep. The consequence is performances so slow and fragmented that they are lifeless. Not only have performances become boring, but the repertory and the number of musicians who perform it also has been shrinking. Because of the proliferation of records, broadcasts and videos, audiences now only want to hear what they already have heard.

The recording process has, therefore, betrayed its original promise -- that we would be unable to tell the difference between the reproduction and its original. It is now live performances that strive to reproduce the mechanical perfection and clarity of the electronically perfected performances on discs.


Most of the destruction wrought by the recording industry has occurred since the introduction of magnetic tape at the end of World War II. The four decades leading up to the war, however, are widely believed to have been a golden age. Musicians felt free to play beyond what was on the score. This meant smooth and unforced elasticity of tempo, melodic lines inflected with unusual warmth and strong forward motion that made music emerge in huge, sweeping arcs.

Musicians brought that sense of relaxation into the recording studio. They felt free, as musicians today rarely do, to make mistakes. Each side of a 78-rpm record contained only about 4 1/2 minutes of music, which is how music was recorded -- one segment after another until the work was complete. Only if a section was a mess would it be redone more than twice. Studio logs show that almost all recordings made before magnetic tape consist of first and second takes. Of the nine sides of Rachmaninoff's own recording of his Third Concerto -- perhaps the most treacherous piece in the piano-and-orchestra repertory seven are first takes.

"I might do it better," Artur Schnabel replied when asked if he wanted to redo some flubbed double octaves in his 1938 recording of Brahms' First Concerto. "But it wouldn't be as good."

The technology of the modern studio, however, has helped foster an atmosphere in which wrong notes are treated like original sin and in which the idiosyncrasies and irregularities that make performances distinctive and lifelike are erased as if they were typos. This ideology has moved from the studio into the concert hall.

Records made change in performance practice inevitable. Until their introduction around the turn of the century, musicians had never been able to listen to what they sounded like to others. They became understandably self-conscious when they did.

As early as 1919, Ferruccio Busoni, the greatest pianist of his day, complained about the artificiality of recording and the strain it produced:

"Not letting oneself go for fear of inaccuracies and being conscious the whole time that every note was going to be there for eternity; how could there be any question of inspiration, swing or poetry?"

Only 10 years later, engineers at the BBC commented upon the brutal objectivity of the microphone, noting that it allowed no faking and demanded new standards of professional competence and technical accuracy:


"There are some who may pass muster in public places where the evidence of the ear is outweighed by the seduction of the eye, but the sensitive electric instrument's photographic reproduction of the performance shows lamentably how much is lacking in finesse, in delicacy."

Recordings thus reinforced such 20th-century attitudes as the reverence for textual accuracy and technical accuracy -- it was called "playing all the notes" -- that were espoused by such musicians as Schnabel and conductor Arturo Toscanini. But as recording continued to develop, it made possible a kind of

creative lying impossible in the concert hall.

Losing the forest for the trees

This was initially done through editing of magnetic tape, which had replaced the cumbersome, impossible-to-edit acetate discs on which music had been recorded since before World War I. This made it possible for musicians to record perfectly what they were incapable of playing accurately.

In the early 1950s, when pianist Paul Badura-Skoda and conductor Artur Rodzinski were listening to the playback of their just-edited recording of both Chopin concertos, Badura-Skoda, never noted for his technical security, proudly remarked, "Not bad."


"Don't you wish you could really play like that," the veteran conductor responded.

Editing has become so sophisticated that as many as 100 takes are sometimes used to achieve a single note-perfect passage. Recording Awadagin Pratt in Busoni's 15-minute-long piano transcription of Bach's Chaconne, for example, required two full days in the studio and more than 300 takes to produce a note-perfect performance. With digital editing, passages can now be speeded up, without changing the pitch, and seamlessly spliced into the "performance." Like movies, recordings are patched together section by section, without regard to actual sequence -- until, as record producers like to say at the conclusion of sessions, "It's all in there someplace."

The drive for accuracy has gone further than either Toscanini or Schnabel dreamed. Modern taste insists that every detail -- whether of rhythm, inner lines or dynamics -- be considered in performance. Such attention to details became possible, however, because of developments in the recording process: Multiple microphoning in the studio made such minutiae, most of it buried in the concert hall, audible for the first time. "Listening to records," as the composer Bela Bartok prophetically observed, "is like examining musical objects under a microscope."

But performances had to slow down to accommodate the accumulation of details. When Rubinstein, Schnabel and Backhaus recorded Brahms' Second Piano Concerto before World War II, it took between 39 and 43 minutes. Now it typically takes 47 to 52 minutes. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that nearly every work in the standard repertory has slowed down similarly in the last 50 years. Not all musical works have been able to withstand this distention: Far too many performances collapse beneath the weight of their details, while others merely become ponderous.

The recordings of the past were made by musicians unaccustomed to microphones and accustomed to having to "sell" a performance to an audience that might be unfamiliar with the work. Thus performances were not only faster, but had more sweep than those today. The precision and clarity of each note was less important than the shape and progress of the music.

While the best modern performers convey the progress of music vividly and while there are some dull and pedantic performances on early recordings, older recorded performances tend to have more individuality and vitality. In his day, Artur Schnabel was considered a musical puritan. But when he recorded the two Brahms concertos, he did not worry about the inhibitions imposed by the 100 or so versions with which his successors have to contend. Despite his reputed literalism, Schnabel's tempo fluctuations are much wider than those today and would now be frowned upon. He could fly impetuously or linger ecstatically, with an elasticity of phrase as well as a sense of line now largely absent from records and concert halls.


Music becomes a commodity

In Schnabel's day, a record was a memento of a famous musician performing repertory closely associated with him. But now it is the tail that wags the dog -- records determine not only what we hear but also who performs it.

Music used to be an intangible. It began, it ended and it disappeared. The experience could be paid for, but it could not be "had." Recordings have changed the nature of that transaction. A compact disc is a commodity which, once paid for, is owned. And the solipsistic satisfaction of getting what one pays for has begun to contaminate the concert hall: What we hear on records is what we expect to hear in the concert hall.

Consider Baltimore Symphony Orchestra attendance this season. Performances of great, if somewhat unfamiliar, works such as Mahler's Third Symphony, Mozart's C minor Mass and Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony filled only about two-thirds of Meyerhoff Hall's 2,500 seats. But Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," which is heard repeatedly on classical-music radio stations, completely filled Meyerhoff for each of three performances.

This may be the future of classical music: a fatal cycle in which the repertory from which programs are chosen continually shrinks. The most familiar work is the most successful and is therefore recorded again and again, played again and again and made more familiar.

One can surfeit on repetition. In his "Harvard Lectures," composer Roger Sessions reported smashing his favorite recording of Debussy's "Fetes":


"What infuriated me was my fully developed awareness of having heard exactly the same sounds, the same nuances, both of tempo and dynamics, the same accents, down to the minutest detail, so many times that I knew exactly -- and I emphasize exactly, to the last instant -- what was coming next."

But records do not simply dictate repertory. They have created a star system that has turned a few musicians into superstars and most of their colleagues into also-rans.

How a musician played was once what mattered most to audiences. The only thing charming about Jascha Heifetz -- the world's highest-paid classical instrumentalist from the 1920s to the 1960s -- was his violin playing. It is difficult today to imagine the poker-faced Heifetz as a superstar and harder still to believe audiences would be discerning enough to make him one.

But if we are not capable of appreciating true musicianship, we still flatter ourselves that we can. It is not musicianship that attracts us so much, however, as it is the images marketed by publicists. The smiling public faces of Yo-Yo Ma or Itzhak Perlman are concrete substitutes for abstract qualities -- such as profundity, sensitivity and warmth -- that earlier concertgoers sought in music itself. We really don't need to listen to Ma or Perlman -- just seeing them is enough. Their fame, their very familiarity, validates them. Buying their records or tickets to their concerts validates us; it demonstrates that we have the taste to appreciate the qualities for which they stand.

This is not to say that Ma and Perlman are untalented -- only that they do not necessarily deserve to outshine every other star in the constellation of string players. At the beginning of World War II, for example, there were at least four cellists -- Pablo Casals, Gregor Piatigorsky, Emmanuel Feuermann and the young Pierre Fournier -- whom every concertgoer wanted to hear. Ma's celebrity, however, has made him the only cellist large audiences are now eager to hear. We know he's "worth" hearing the same way we know the "Mona Lisa" is worth seeing.

Recording contributes to this celebrity value system by extravagantly magnifying the place of soloists, miking them so closely that their collaborators -- whether pianists or orchestras -- scarcely seem to matter.


Recording has always had to create a product that could never be produced in the concert hall. When we listen to an actual performance of a violin or piano concerto, we concentrate on the soloist -- on his honored position on the stage, on the way his hands dash around the instrument's fingerboard or keyboard, and on the way the conductor and the players defer to him. On a record, however, the sound of the solo instrument must be favored by the microphones -- for without the visual stimuli, the sound of the soloist disappears into the orchestral background.

But current recording practices go far beyond necessity. Perlman's contract -- and while he may be the worst, he's probably not the only offender -- stipulates that orchestras must remain below a certain decibel level when he records. Such distortion penetrates the concert hall: Conductors know that if they hope to re-engage Perlman, they must keep their accompaniments subdued, even when it is detrimental to the music. Perlman is an honorable enough purveyor of commodities to insist that his customers get what they pay for.

Is it real or is it Memorex?

The earliest record producers would be surprised to learn that recordings no longer try to be faithful reproductions of what music lovers heard in the concert hall. They wanted merely to keep the past alive. The early trademark of EMI (Electrical and Musical Industries), the British company with the richest vault of recorded treasures, was "The Sign of the Recording Angel." That winged cherub, sprawled on a record and using a quill to engrave it, plainly says that the company's business is to give musicians an afterlife.

EMI abandoned the angel in 1909 when it adopted its current logo, which it shares with BMG Classics' RCA Victor Red Seal. It is among the most beloved icons of the 20th century and is derived from Francis Barraud's painting, "His Master's Voice": Nipper, that little bundle of canine loyalty, sits in front of a phonograph, his head cocked in puzzlement, as he hears his absent master's voice.

Master, of course, is not actually speaking; Nipper hears only the sounds he recorded earlier. The logo may be the first example of an enduring recording industry campaign: to persuade listeners that it is impossible to distinguish the copy from the original.


But recording has not served to preserve the original so much as it has to replace it. And, as it happens, this endearing logo is a sanitized version of Barraud's original painting. In the original, Nipper still listens to his master's voice; but he is seated on a coffin, and the phonograph's horn, at which he stares, is placed next to a portrait of his late master.

If "His Master's Voice" is somewhat morbid, it is a pointed reminder of the fate of live performance in an age of electronic reproduction.