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.


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.


  1. It's always a mistake to try to eliminate that last 1% of error.
    Over many years of doing just that, and witnessing the whole endeavor come crashing down, I conclude that insignificant error is the true nature of perfection.
    In other words: for a genuine human, that's as good as it gets.

  2. This is a problem with recordings. Any mistakes can loom larger and ruin your enjoyment of the performance because with repeated listening you come to anticipate them. With studio recordings they create unrealistic expectations and can lose the sense of flow that is so important to the overall performance.

  3. This is such a great observation. I have had similar experiences. Not to associated Rock with classical, but a couple of days ago I was browsing a movie site and came on Celebration Day, a 2008 concert reunion movie of Led Zeppelin. The show opened with the first song on the first Led Zep album, Good Times Bad Times. When it got to this famous guitar riff, really the first exposure that most ever had to Jimmy Page, he just sort of did something, some run up the neck of the guitar, but nothing even close to the original studio version. I had thought it even bad even for a cover band trying to play a Led Zep song, and certainly disappointing for the legendary Jimmy Page. And I shut off the whole movie. I don't play guitar and have no idea how difficult it might be to reproduce the studio version, and apparently it is impossible. I used to have friend that would play along to the records, and my friend was very good. And would say "He's off into some zone" meaning not reproducable. Those Led Zep records, really all of them, were probably my most listened to pieces of music in my life. We are talking about a era where I was 13 up until 20, when I had just a few records, and even fewer in the car, as was the same with my friends. And we all had those. So those notes are as burnt into my head as any other piece of music. For people of my age group, it is our Bach, our Beethoven. I had wondered if say 100 years from now, would those songs be studies and treated, played as classics. Now I doubt it, at least not to the studio standards.

    So now I understand why I was so disappointed in the movie. Thanks for explaining it. I find with some classical music, it is even more than just studio vs live. It even can be the first studio recording you heard compared to subsequent renditions by a different symphony for featured artist. There is always some differences in emphasis, maybe even the sustain on a note, the way a particular passage was played, even ever so slightly different, that had mad me feel,"Oh well, these guys are trash. They under emphasized this note here so they know nothing of Chopin! Clowns!" It is probably best to see live pieces from orchestras that you probably are not that familiar, so that as you said, you can enjoy the performance for its virtuosity without being all nit picky. I would guess that is how the music was originally experienced by an audience that had no access to recording equipment that can pick up the sound of a pin dropping. And it might explain why it was so much more popular than it is today. I went to a philharmonic recently and the selection wasn't familiar to me. And the most enjoyable part was how those musicians seemed to really enjoy it all and when they sort of "put their backs into it" during the emphatic parts, I rose to it with them instead of judging them.

    Thanks for the explanation.

  4. Paul McCartney hits a clunker with the piano on the 3rd verse of Let it Be. It stands out so obviously that I can't help but listen for it every time I hear the song.

  5. @Dutchman - Yes, I know the kind of thing you mean. And this is exactly why such errors nearly always, and probably rightly, do get edited-out in the recording process.

    My great hero Glenn Gould eschewed live performance, and regarded recording as superior - he believed he could create a better interpretation via the editing process than by any possible single live version. So there is that perspective as well...

    But it is a shame when people with sufficient knowledge and musicality to hear the errors find that can listen to a great live performance but find themselves continually distracted by 'clunkers'!

    On the other hand, I have been at live performances by prestigious musicians (recording artists), who (no doubt they were ill, exhausted or having an off-day) were making clunkers virtually every bar, so that it was simply excruciating to me... yet at the end of the pieces, the artists received a rapturous standing ovation (when a commiserating shake of the head and a wry by sympathetic 'win some, lose some' shrug of the shoulders was the proper response to their courage in persisting in the face of embarrassing ineptitude.

    Clearly most members of an average audience simply can't hear the mistakes - either because they don't know the pieces, or because they can't hear 'inside' the music - a skill which requires some aptitude and more training!

    (I know I am more musical than ninety-something percent of the population, on the basis of this kind of experience - but I also know that there are plenty of people who go far beyond what I am capable of. I am good enough to be a music critic, probably; but nothing like good enough to be a conductor, or a judge of instrumental performance at music competitions - except perhaps of the human voice, where I think I have a more exceptional ear. But musicality of this sort is not really a matter of opinion; but it is an objective and measurable ability, like maths - and I have never had mine tested or measured, so I am just guessing, really.)

  6. I lost faith in the ability of the vast majority of people to judge musical ability or performance a long time ago. I have found that the vast majority of people can't even hear these things when I point it out to them. I understand that no one is perfect and that you shouldn't allow mistakes to ruin your overall appreciation of a good performance, but if you can't even hear the mistakes how can you judge the performance to begin with?

  7. Friends of mine:

    Ivo: The market for quality and uncompromising recordings of classical music is tiny. Modern recordings often stink of surgical spirit and are made of plastic because of excessive interventions by people who believe they are making them better by intervention, when they are achieving the opposite. Also, labels expect to have a ready-to-sell product and very often rely on their own archives. - See more at:

  8. Thank you for the recommendation and observation. I had only ever listened to recordings of Beethoven's piano sonatas (quite often), but I'm really enjoying the concertos now and will have to also pay attention to the live ones!


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