Warts-and-all recordings

18th August 2011 | Concerts, Musings | 5 comments

A thoughtful letter today from a reader about recordings. He’s noticed that musicians often say they dislike the manicured, edited-to-within-an-inch-of-their-lives recordings of today, and prefer the more ‘natural’, warts-and-all approach of the earlier twentieth century, when it wasn’t possible to correct or ‘improve’ things afterwards. Record collectors, too, often cherish these less self-conscious recordings. My correspondent asks innocently why, if musicians dislike today’s glossy finished product, they submit to being edited like that?

It’s a vexed question to which there don’t seem to be any answers, only more questions. Why has bland perfection become such an ideal in every field? It’s the taste of our time. Photos are routinely air-brushed, celebrities’ figures digitally altered to make them taller and slimmer. Public figures have makeovers to weed out their idiosyncrasies. Speech impediments are treated; erratic teeth are straightened. Magazines promote the identically fabulous lifestyles of the wealthy. We know there are often other realities behind the images, but that hasn’t quenched our thirst for airbrushed glamour. It’s the same in the music world.

You might counter that there is now a healthy vogue for ‘live concert recordings’, but even that can be a bit of a fiction. Yes, the concert is used as the basis for the finished product, but the rehearsals are often recorded and used as material for ‘patching’ mistakes. Sometimes the players also stay behind after the concert to ‘do corrections’. Many ‘live’ labels should really be called ‘based on a live performance’ or ‘lightly edited’. Otherwise, it’s just perpetuating the myth that perfection is routine.


  1. monita117

    Thanks for such an insightful post. Perhaps this so-called perfection is a way of separating the elite from “the rest of us.” A way of measuring caste in the modern day. The more perfect one is, the more valid one is…

  2. peter

    There are definitely cultural differences in this area. One feature of Japanese plastic arts these last several centuries has been the insertion of deliberate mistakes and imperfections into pottery and ceramics, as a way of manifesting the idea that there is no such thing as perfection.

    I think part of the issue here is the overly-reverent view that we modern westerners have of text and anything written. So scores are priviliged over performances, even in recordings and live performances, with historically inaccurate practices being undertaken because that is what is written in the score.

  3. Roger Roser

    Perhaps Glenn Gould would have had the final word on this. His ‘live’ recordings (pre 1963) seem to be ‘wart free’ but perhaps he is having the last (posthumous) laugh?

  4. Jim

    Yes, a heartfelt melody performed with mistakes can be more touching than a note-perfect recording. On the other hand, it is a little irritating when an instrument splits its notes during an important passage. I remember a performance of the orchestral version of Satie’s first Gymnopedie at the Proms a few years ago where the piece was first of all interrupted by a persistent mobile phone in the first bar and then the poor oboe player made mistake after mistake. Not the type of live recording I’d like to live with.

    I’m just reveling in the final movement of the Florestan’s E Flat Schubert Trio, definitely prefering the original, unedited version. Poor Schubert having to scythe off vital sections in order for the music to make sense to the listeners at the time. I can’t hear any mistakes at all and it’s glorious!

  5. amateur

    “Why has bland perfection become such an ideal in every field? It’s the taste of our time.” Is that true of art too? One could look at Michelangelo’s David and say ‘the figure’s out of proportion and it only works if you’re looking up at it’, or look at a Rembrandt sketch and say ‘that line just there is outside the main shape, so it’s superfluous and shouldn’t be there’ – but usually one doesn’t, because overall the work is so skilled it is beautiful in itself, or so-called ‘mistakes’ actually contribute to the whole (unwittingly). We live with all of that and normally don’t call it imperfect.


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