Are recordings getting better and better?
For some years now I’ve had the sense that recordings and performances of classical music are, on average, getting better and better. And that’s something to celebrate!
So, it came as a surprise to read the Gramophone list of ‘250 Greatest Recordings’ on another thread (thanks, @Hugh) and to observe that it was heavily weighted towards older recordings. What’s going on there? Perhaps these lists really are intended as a starting point, of much interest but not to be taken too seriously.
But could it be true, that the greatest recordings are often decades old?
Surely, there will always be older recordings that we will treasure for their historical importance, or because they captured an extraordinary performance.
On the other hand, from a technical viewpoint, we might expect recordings to continuously improve with advances in recording and production technologies.
And, to my ears, there’s more than that: the performances are often surpassing each other. There’s ever increasing academic knowledge of the works, of course, and of historically informed practice. But there also seems to be an increasing freshness of approach, an enthusiasm of performers to immerse themselves in their art, in a way that appears to change as the years go by. (Although, obviously, there have always been extraordinary musicians!)
If recordings *are* actually on the up and up, I’m wondering if streaming might also have something to do with it? Could it be that (with streaming sources that pay by the second), the economics are different, the risks change, there are new audiences, and there’s competition to produce better and better recordings, and also impetus for recording companies to be more adventurous with their catalogues? I hope so.
What do you think?
Interesting musings, @jen. I was pretty surprised by the Gramophone list, too. It felt like they started creating that list several decades ago and then thought "Oh, we better whack in some recent performances to make it seem current."
I'm not sure whether performances are improving, but recording techniques certainly are. But even if the performances aren't necessarily superior, improved recording quality can enhance the impact of a performance. Recording technology alone can't turn a bad performance into a good one, but it can make a great performance sound better than an equally great yet poorly recorded one.
The reverse is also true: bad technology can wreck a beautiful performance. It's like listening to a brilliant live performance in an acoustically dreadful space (which, unfortunately, happened to me the last time I heard Pinchas Zuckerman).
Yes, indeed - those heart-stopping moments in concerts (or recordings) when a fabulous performance is played in a wonderful acoustic (or beautifully recorded).
For me, if I can’t have the luxury of both, I prefer a fantastic performance in an ok acoustic or recording, rather than vice-versa.
And these days, I’m sensing that musicians are, in general, prepared to take greater risks in the recording studio. They will pull out all the stops for a fantastic performance; one that is ‘of the moment’, rather than playing it safe to lay down a ‘definitive’ performance. So what I’m hearing on newer recordings often seems to capture more of magic of a concert. I love that. (And I like the atmosphere, and the shared experience of an actual concert even more! 😊)
@Jen Indeed the recording quality has improved over the years. Playback has improved and scholarship has improved when it comes to interpretations. Unfortunately, that does not mean the heart and soul has also improved. This is not to suggest that today's performers lack heart or soul in their interpretations and performances, but....previous generations were closer to the sound and structure of the music: it surrounded them on a daily basis. They remembered works and played them in their heads: they did not plug in to their device to hear. This is a closer, more heart-filled and soul-attached relationship to the music that advanced scholarship and a history of interpretation cannot replicate. Classical music pervaded their society: it was a soundtrack to every film; most concerts were for classical music. Today, well.....we know what pervades where ever we go and whatever we watch..... 😥 😓 😫
It’s great to hear an opposing view, @eldarboy!
I wonder if there may be trends that differ from one country to another? My sense (and it’s nothing more than a sense, with some anecdotal evidence) is that something quite different is happening in the UK: today’s classical musicians are as much surrounded by music as they have ever been (despite the distractions), and may well be even more immersed in it than previous generations.
When I look at the faces of players on the concert stage, the communication between them, and the beautifully nuanced performances that seem increasingly frequent, there appears to be more enthusiasm, and more passion for music.
It could be argued that’s because performers are becoming less formal on the stage, and their engagement with the music is just more visible. Except that palpable engagement seems to be more and more evident in recordings.
Of course there are huge, obvious exceptions to the trend I’m perceiving. And it goes without saying that there have always been musicians who could not be more passionate about music. It just seems (to me) to be more common these days.
Or perhaps I’m becoming increasingly optimistic as I get older 😂
I think that it's inevitable in this day and age that recordings are getting "better" all the time, if not necessarily in quality then in terms of quantity and variety.
I mean, there's is certainly an abundance of talented, intelligent artists, and this creates a (usually) great environment of competition and a desire to capture the audience's attention by providing more and more innovative, nuanced and intelligent recordings /albums.
Also, the great improvements in internet broadband connections, and consequently streaming, and the growing influence of social media platforms make it a little easier for smaller (but not less excellent in any way) ensembles to reach a wider, newer base of listeners/ viewers, who would have found it difficult, otherwise, to physically visit a venue to attend a concert in person (I'm one of those 🙋♀️) but who now have hundreds of options to watch from the comfort of their homes, for a very reasonable price, sometimes even gratis! And if one becomes a fan of a certain artist or ensemble, one (usually) tends to purchase their new recordings, which might encourage them to produce even more!
Of course as @Eldarboy observed,
Unfortunately, that does not mean the heart and soul has also improved.
And sometimes, also unfortunately, you would find albums that are simply a regurgitation (please pardon my word!) of older recordings/ interpretations by the same artist/ ensemble in a new shiny cover!
The key here, in my opinion, is our discerning and intelligent choice as an audience.
You know, after so insistently defending my corner, I’m being gently persuaded that corner may be flawed. It’s wonderful to have these discussions here!
We agree that recording quality is generally improving, as would be expected; that scholarship is increasing; but perhaps it is true that performances are not necessarily getting better and better 🤔
I realise that my earlier viewpoint stems from preferring baroque, classical and contemporary music for small(ish) forces, and I sense those performances are frequently surpassing themselves. It’s great to hear the new ensembles, with fresh ideas, presenting themselves in new ways to new audiences.
But, thinking of the big orchestral works, and of operas and so on, many of the great performances will not be so easily surpassed…
It won’t stop me eagerly awaiting the new releases every Friday though 😉