[Frankly I can’t remember for which publication I wrote this. Obviously it was sometime in the 1990s. Alas, it remains relevant.]

Live vs. Recorded: Is There Still a Difference?

Pianist Evgeny Kissin played his Carnegie Hall debut on a Sunday afternoon [in 1991]. His publicists scheduled a day of interviews with the music press the following Wednesday. But on Tuesday, they called writers to cancel all the interviews. “We’re very sorry,” they said, “but Mr. Kissin has to return to Russia on Thursday and he needs the time on Wednesday to edit the tapes of his recital” (eventually issued by RCA Victor Red Seal).

If it was a live concert recording, what editing was there to do? Either the notes were there or they weren’t.

That’s the way they did things back in the good old days, when live performances were issued on recordings as they were played or sung, wrong notes and all. Listeners might have winced in anticipation of the exposed clinker we knew was coming in a Richter performance of a Beethoven Sonata, or the high note we knew Callas was about to sing flat. But we accepted these momentary distractions as the price we willingly paid for the thrill of hearing a great artist going all out in front of an audience, taking chances and bringing most of them off.

All of this changed in 1965, when Vladimir Horowitz made his long-anticipated return to concertizing at Carnegie Hall. His record label, Columbia, insisted that the concert be recorded and published, rightly anticipating a best-seller. But Horowitz was unwilling to have record-buyers hear him playing wrong notes. So he went back to Carnegie Hall after the performance and re-recorded several passages he was displeased with. This probably wasn’t the first example ever of patching up a live performance recording, but it became the first well-publicized example when critics who had heard the concert noticed the differences in the recording.

Since then, the editing of ‘live” performances has become standard procedure, even in radio broadcasts. Nearly all orchestral broadcasts these days are edited together from more than one concert, if the orchestra played the program more than once. The Syracuse Symphony, a fine regional orchestra which plays at a remarkably high standard, broadcast one concert under the direction of a well-known but inept guest conductor with more than 80 edits. And virtually any major label publication of a live concert, except for the rare miracle of a perfect performance, is certain to have repair work done. Only unauthorized bootleg issues taken directly from in-house concert recordings or truly live broadcasts, are likely to have any audible mistakes in them.

So what’s the problem? Aren’t we better off combining the spontaneity of live music-making with freedom from distractions?

Maybe. But the real problem is the effect that recorded music is having on live music. In popular music, live performances these days are usually intended to be close replicas of recordings. Some performers, like Milli Vanilli and Luciano Pavarotti, have actually been caught lip-synching to their own recordings in public instead of actually singing. And the same thing is happening in classical music, where conservatory students often feel their playing or singing must live up to the standards of recorded music.

This is bound to have an effect on the expressive qualities of performances. Pianist Jacob Lateiner, one of the most respected piano teachers at the Juilliard School of Music (and a frequent chamber music partner of the famous perfectionist Jascha Heifetz), plays for his students a recording of a broadcast performance by Artur Schnabel, in which the pianist actually loses his place in a Mozart Concerto and has to stop for a moment. Schnabel and the orchestra continue with no loss of concentration, and the performance comes to a triumphant conclusion. “But I have to tell students that he didn’t lose his job,” Lateiner says, “and that the critics didn’t force him out of the business. They’re afraid that if they do anything wrong, they’re finished.”

The ability to take chances always carries the risk of doing something wrong. But the failure to take chances leads to the kind of sterile, cautious music-making that critics frequently complain about in our contemporary concert halls and opera houses. Maybe what we need is some live performance recordings and broadcasts by famous musicians with the errors left in. A recent issue by RCA of a live Artur Rubinstein concert in Russia replaced a flawed section with the same passage from a studio recording, saving us from hearing Rubinstein’s bloopers but also ruining the flow and excitement of the performance. Audiences and performers alike may need the permission to hear, and to make, a few more mistakes.

–Leslie Gerber+

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