Live and let it be live….
A couple of years ago I remember listening to a live performance of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. It seemed to be a rather constrained affair until there was a split note in the brass section. This seemed to bring about a palpable change in the players and from then on it became a real performance. As a listener I breathed a sigh of relief and rather than feeling that the blemish detracted from the experience, felt that it had done the whole thing a power of good!
That’s what I love about hearing early recordings of the likes of Kreisler or Caruso – you accept them with all their idiosyncracies but benefit also from that wonderful sense of freedom and spontaneity that they bring. In essence, these great performers have a touch of magic. This is also what I appreciate about the more up to date recordings of Itzhak Perlman – his playing is so rich with different qualities: panache, humour, yearning, tenderness, daring. He has what only the great violinists have: his own unique intonation, which he subtly changes to bring out the qualities of the particular piece of music he is playing. But what I appreciate just as much in his recordings is his decision to let things go – there are often little ‘nicks’ of the bow as well as notes that don’t speak, but he is more concerned in committing to disc a real performance than an exercise in editing rigour. In this sense (despite some editing), all of Perlman’s recordings can be considered ‘live’ – and witnessing him playing in a concert hall almost 20 years ago I can vouch that the level of his performance that night was easily as good as a recording!
In contrast, there are many ‘live’ recordings out there that are a travesty of the word. Often several performances on tour are edited together with an extra day in one of the concert halls for a patching-up session. I’m afraid part of the problem lies with music reviews. Often the people who write them are academics rather than performing musicians and despite having an excellent intellectual background in the music, lack the insight into what makes a real performance. Orchestras and soloists could release a brilliant live performance, but the academics reviewing it would highlight blemishes in order to demonstrate how perceptive their own listening skills are! The reviews themselves are an important part of marketing a new classical release (as well as often being quoted on future releases and concert promotion material) so musicians feel pressure to only release recordings which have been airbrushed.
In my ideal world, a live recording would be of a live performance. Rather than the standard argument that blemishes detract from recordings (because repeated playing would irritate the listener), I would say the opposite is true. The mistakes add to the character and become your friends – they are the proof that the performer’s intention is to create a moving experience and not to release a package that will satisfy the preconceived beliefs of critics.