Sunday, 18 October 2015

Not listening for mistakes - live versus studio recordings

I have recently been listening to live performances of Beethoven sonatas by some of the great pianists  (Richter, Arrau, Gilels, Horowitz and the like) - and I was struck that they all make mistakes - every single one of them makes mistakes in every live performance of a piano sonata, and often quite a few.

(You have to know the pieces and be reasonably musical to notice them, but they are objectively present.)

Indeed, some of the recordings of famous pianists of the very earliest recording era - considered great virtuoso interpreters - are riddled with errors (by my recording-bred evaluations).

But I grew up on studio recordings, which seldom have any mistakes at all. Even when they are mediocre performances, and the execution in general is imperfect - they don't have 'bum notes' or that kind of obvious error, because these are edited-out during the recording process.

It seems that listening to recordings has been bad musical training for me - in some ways! Because I find that I am rather unreasonably distracted by these errors, and they somewhat impair my appreciation of what may be a truly inspired performance.

My zero-tolerance of errors is a result of my having been misled - because errors are a part of any real musical performance: the error-free performance of a Beethoven Piano Sonata is an artificial construction of the editor; not the achievement of any actual pianist.

My conclusion is that musical performance in the past was much more of a gestalt - an overall impression of the whole, or perhaps judgement was of the peaks of execution - and that there was not even a goal of being error-free.

To even be able to play-through something like a Beethoven piano sonata is something of a human miracle; to play it musically a rare achievement; and to play it with inspiration and flair - really to communicate its musicality via the interpreter... well that is a supreme accomplishment.

But to do all this and have zero errors is probably not human at all - but more akin to a Hollywood starlet whose face has been smoothed and body 'enhanced' by plastic surgery; or a middle aged leading man whose torso has been cut and sculpted by hormone supplements (the visual result tided up by careful make-up and lighting).

To demand error-free 'perfection' in real life is asking to be deceived, and to miss-out on the peaks of human accomplishment. All true greatness is sui generis (one-off); and in scaling the heights a genius inevitably breaks the rules, and slips and stumbles.

Aim high and you risk failure - indeed you will fail, sooner or later and probably sooner: demand freedom from errors and you can only get close by aiming low and trying to be accurate instead of great.

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Note added: I would recommend, as a long term project, listening to the Beethoven Piano Sonatas. They are very various in style and mood, and so deep as to be inexhaustible. Perhaps I have listened to these, and to Bach's keyboard writing, more than any other music over the past 35 years. They are quite difficult to appreciate (and of course you won't like them all, or in all performances! - I personally find that much of the famous Hammerklavier is usually hard to enjoy); but my advice is just to keep playing them over and over. Sometimes they can be background music, which builds familiarity; sometimes you can listen with 100 percent attention. But I can state that the one thing you need not worry about, is getting 'fed-up' of them.