A few years ago a friend played for me a tape copy of an Edison cylinder recorded by Johannes Brahms in Vienna in 1889. Edison’s agent in the city, Theo Wangemann, announces the date and place of the recording and that he is with “Doktor” Brahms himself. After a short pause, the playing begins. I could not at all identify the piece, since the scratch and swish seemed to drown out everything. My friend then conducted what was playing, and it jumped out at me—a snippet from the composer’s “Hungarian Dance No. 1” in G minor. What was also evident was a rambunctious, free- wheeling pianism—what the young Artur Schnabel noted as Brahms’s “creative vitality and wonderful carelessness.” More scientifically, Jonathan Berger, of the Center for Computer Assisted Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University, after subjecting the Brahms cylinder to every conceivable scrutiny, notes a “liberal rubato, some protracted fermati, and improvisation at a number of points” and a tempo “considerably slower than any recent recording.” My sense is that Brahms was the kind of player who could play a piece all over again using only the notes he missed the first time around.
Timothy Day is curator of Western Art Music at the Sound Archive of the British Library in London. He has given us, at the very least, a study of the history and implications of recorded music from the late nineteenth century to our day, beginning with an inaccurate description of that Brahms cylinder right on the first page of his study. Much of this chronological treatment of the history of recordings—from cylinders to 78 rpm discs (first acoustically, then electrically recorded) to the 33 rpm LP vinyl record (mono, later stereo) and on to the compact disc revolution (not to mention DVD)—has been well covered in such works as Roland Gelatt’s Fabulous Phonograph (1955, rev. 1977) and Guy A. Marco’s Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound in America (1993). Moreover, the point of view given in Day’s historical overview is decidedly English, not to say provincial. He leaves out many historical developments in the Forties and the Fifties on this side of the Atlantic that deserve scrutiny. For instance: how did the long-playing record develop within the CBS labs? Any reader of the various editions of David Hall’s indispensable Records (not consulted by Day) would know that, after Columbia’s announcement of the LP revolution in the summer of 1948, RCA Victor, in a burst of foolish commercial effrontery, decided that they would put out their own kind of discs, playing at 45 rpm and measuring only 7", which meant that only five minutes or so of music could be contained on each side. The long-playing record, measuring 10" and later 12", and able to contain twenty-five minutes of music, triumphed. Soon realizing that they had been vanquished in this matter, RCA Victor had to eat crow in January 1950 and ask for a license from Columbia Records, the patentee, to put out LP’s, which it then proceeded to do along with everyone else, and the 45 rpm record was relegated to the jukebox where it belonged. But for a while, it was a toss-up between two goliaths, William Paley of CBS and “General” David Sarnoff of RCA. There is a real story here, but Day is not interested.
Similarly, while he is careful to point out the technological advances in recording on tape brought about by Decca/London, EMI, Deutsche Gramophon, and Telefunken, both in England and on the continent, he never mentions the revolutionary recording technique of C. Robert Fine and David Hall of Mercury Records in the United States— the simple device of hanging one Telefunken microphone over the podium, resulting in a series of still stunning and still revered recordings. The idea was that it was a conductor’s business to balance an orchestra, not an engineer with knob in hand after the fact.
Day is right to emphasize the role of the record producer, and he expectedly (and properly) outlines the achievements of three men—Fred Gaisberg, Walter Legge, and John Culshaw. Each is renowned —Gaisberg for his intrepid recording of Caruso in a Milan hotel room in 1902 and for recording Chaliapin, John McCormack, Mischa Elman, Kreisler, Schnabel and Casals, not to mention two great recordings made just before World War II, the Dvorak Cello concerto with Casals, Szell, and the Czech Philharmonic, and a still inimitable Mahler Ninth with Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic. If Gaisberg was saintly and self-effacing, his disciple Walter Legge was nasty and autocratic, as befits the husband of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Easily the most hated man in the business, Legge was characterized in memorable fashion by Sir Thomas Beecham as “a mass of egregious fatuity.” Perhaps, but Legge was the sole creator of the Philharmonia Orchestra, the genius behind Angel Records, the discoverer of Herbert von Karajan. Against all odds, Legge certainly got things done—Tristan und Isolde with Flagstad and Furtwängler, the Karajan/Schwarzkopf Rosenkavalier, the innumerable late recordings of Otto Klemperer, the great series of Viennese operettas, the championing of Lipatti—the list goes on and on. More convivially, the scholarly and reserved John Culshaw is renowned for one of the great sonic achievements of the stereo era—Wagner’s monumental Ring der Nibelungen, with the best singers of the day and the impassioned collaboration of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Georg Solti.
Day is quite justified in giving these three their due, but, as an evocative writer and a critic with insight into people, he has stiff competition from Norman Lebrecht. In Who Killed Classical Music? (1997), Lebrecht, the music columnist for The Daily Telegraph, wrote about this same trio of producers with a panache and flair that Day cannot manage. As for the same kind of visionaries in the United States, Day does mention once in passing the seminal figure of Goddard Lieberson (head of Columbia Records), but Lebrecht has more detail:
[Lieberson] signed Stravinsky to record his entire musical output, retrieved Charles Ives from oblivion, lured the iconoclastic pianists Vladimir Horowitz and Glenn Gould [whose signing was actually the work of Lieberson’s lieutenant David Oppenheim] to the label, protected the slow-selling Duke Ellington. His original-cast album of My Fair Lady sold five million copies in 1957 and helped pay for comprehensive Schoenberg and Webern editions.
The recordings of the Bernstein era with the New York Philharmonic and of such great Broadway shows as Porgy and Bess and South Pacific were also Lieberson’s doing. Little of this information is in Day’s book.
Day goes to great lengths to discuss topics that are of a very peculiar and particular interest to an English music lover— the changing timbres over the years of the King’s College Choir or whether most of English Rennaissance choir music is being sung a minor third too low. In a subsection entitled “Composers listen to recordings,” there is a whole series of speculations concerning particular English composers’ first encounters with gramophone records, and their possible influence. In the case of John Tavener, for instance,
when he was three … he played over and over again a record made in 1929 of 250 Manchester schoolchildren singing Purcell’s “Nymphs and Shepherds,” and his biographer suggests that this is early evidence of his enduring love for high and pure voices and for ritual and repetition, perhaps a defining moment.
Maybe so, maybe not.
The book is also full of odd juxtapositions of intriguing subjects. In chapter III, “Changes in Performing Styles Recorded,” a section on “Performance Style in Fourteenth Century Chansons” is followed by “Changing Styles in Webern Performance.” All prices for 78 discs are given in pre-World War I shillings, pounds, and guineas, with no table of monetary equivalency in today’s dollars. In general, the study seems unnecessarily discontinuous in the organization of its historical materials.
There is, however, and this is to be taken as a very weighty “however,” another book hidden within this historical overview. Day has given his study a subtitle, which I purposely omitted from the heading of this review: “Listening to Musical History.” The question is what has been the effect of the gradual accumulation of past recorded musical performance on the contemporary performer. And in that sense, we are back to the Brahms cylinder. It is not just that Brahms played his composition with reckless gusto and panache; Day avers that before the recording era all conductors, soloists, and singers considered performance as something close to an opportunity for improvisation and on-the-spot reworking of musical texts. It was absolute re-creation, the only reference point being a possible prior audition of the same piece somewhere else. Day describes in rich detail how composers such as Elgar and Rachmaninoff recorded versions of their compositions that were at considerable variance with the musical text in question. Moreover, as Day so convincingly shows, there is no evidence that the distance between the musical score and the sonic realization back then was at all perturbing to the composers in question. After all, they were right there in the studio, in charge of everything.
One of the largest implications of recordings is that they constitute an ongoing record of sonic self-consciousness. This aspect of the power of the new technology is amusingly pointed out by Day when he describes the Gaisberg sessions with the sixty-two-year old Adelina Patti in December 1905. After performing various arias, she threw kisses at the recording machine and was heard to exclaim: “Oh! My God!! Now I understand why I am Patti!! Yes!! What a voice!! What an artist!! I understand everything now!!” On a more serious level, the older artists before the microphone displayed, according to Day, an “improvisatory nature, the slight air of disorderliness, of spontaneity, which disconcerts a modern listener most of all.”
The famous recordings of Beethoven quartets by the Busch Quartet are performances of four distinct musical personalities interacting, as they might express it, rather than the smooth, effortless, meticulous and precisely coordinated and integrated ensemble speaking with one voice characteristic of the 1990’s.
(Here, Day is obviously referring to the antiseptic, wholly concerted performing style typical of such groups as the Alban Berg Quartet, the Emerson Quartet, and the Vermeer Quartet.) Day rightly points that “a listener’s expectations in the concert hall, in live performances, are based on the standards achieved or seemingly achieved in performances on discs.” Today many old orchestral practices sound wrong, or just sloppy. For instance, conductors such as Felix Weingartner and Wilhelm Furtwängler favored arppegiating opening chords, such as the first bars of the Beethoven Third or Seventh—the lower choirs would enter a millisecond before the rest of the orchestra, resulting in a rush of sound rather than a simultaneous chordal blast. These are out of the question today. As an uninitiated friend remarked, “They can’t even start together!!”
Day concludes that “Recordings have clearly documented the taming, as some might see it, the moderating, the cooling, the classicizing of performing styles.” The propagation of gramophone recordings has also accompanied a grand tendency toward objectivization in the arts in the twentieth century. Exactitude, without “personal” stylistic interjection, is valued now more than ever, everything must be “authentic.” Day suggests that the gramophone in its totality has forced something of a cowed historical consciousness upon all younger performers’ and conductors’ minds as they ply their craft, and this has resulted in a greater and greater musical literalness, or worse, a blandness both in musical performance and in recording. It would seem that during this now century-long process in which gramophone recordings have played such a key role, much has been gained, and even more has been irrevocably lost.
Alexander Coleman was a long-time contributor to The New Criterion and a close friend of the editors
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