CD / Studio vs. Live Recordings / Concerts

A Reflection


2014-02-12 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2014-11-10 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-18 — Brushed up for better readability


Zurich Opera 2013-12-22, applause for Rachmaninoff piano concert No.2

Outline


Live Concerts — The Ultimate Goal For Everyone?

A lot could be said about the pros and cons of concerts or live recordings vs. listening to CDs / studio recordings. I remember endless discussions many years ago with friends, around the quality of audio reproduction, stereo equipment, end the like. I remember one friend who would typically kill any such discussion with the argument “You know, for me, nothing beats a live concert experience!”. At this point, it made no sense to carry the discussion any further. However, on a broader scope, there’s more to consider. This argument may be valid for very occasional concert goers. Or for people who can afford to attend concerts whenever they feel like. In my case,

  • For one, over most of the past 30 years I did not have the opportunity to plan for more than very occasional concerts: my job made this impossible.
  • On the other hand, I’m an avid music listener (as one can guess from this blog). Substituting any relevant share of my music listening with live concerts is simply impossible — not just time-wise, but also financially, given today’s ticket prices.
  • Finally, a concert (or a visit to the opera) typically is a one-time event. It may give a strong impression, but that experience can normally not be repeated (except maybe in the next performance in an opera). Details that one missed to capture will be lost forever.

In short: yes, concerts are unique experiences, almost every time. They are something that I wouldn’t want to miss in my life, as rarely as I can enjoy them. Past concerts are a precious part of my musical memory. But I’m not able to satisfy my musical needs through concerts alone.

YouTube / On-Line Video & TV Replacing Live Concerts?

However, there’s YouTube. Over the past years (especially since they allow for videos of more than 7 – 10 minutes), this has evolved into a very useful channel. It gives access to recordings of live performances, not just by amateur musicians, but also full concert performances, usually from TV broadcasts. I just wished the YouTube designers had done something to keep comments under control, e.g., by disallowing anonymous commenting!

Sure, even a good YouTube video will always be a far cry from a live concert experience. It can not transport the live concert atmosphere and the details of the live acoustics (nor the social experience). But, at least for a good TV recording, it offers

Advantages

  • a view that is not fixed / bound to a specific seating position;
  • close-up views into the stage that are impossible to have (at least in their entirety & variation) as a concert-goer;
  • maybe not the details of the acoustics, the reverberation of the concert hall or venue, but a balanced audio reception. At the same time, it gives more “hands-on / close-up” detail than even an ideal seat can provide. If you are in the center of the hall, you may have perfectly balanced acoustics, but limited detail. Close-up seats give all details on nearby performers, but at the same time a very limited acoustic balance.
  • an artist’s facial expression and body language may offer additional insight / impressions and a vastly enhanced / amplified experience that a CD can’t offer at all;
  • last, but not least, certain artists don’t record CDs (e.g., Grigory Sokolov). Others offer fantastic live performances, but very often fail to produce the same or similar results in a studio. For some, an audio-only recording may simply not be able to capture the atmosphere and the overall experience of a live concert. To me, Claudio Abbado was a typical example for this.

Equivalent to Live?

For some of the following, YouTube concert recordings and live concert experiences can be considered equivalent (with obvious exceptions) — as long as amateur recordings (especially using mobile phones or similar equipment) are excluded.

Downsides of “Live” Events

Live concerts also have drawbacks!

Mishaps

  • Singers / artists may not be in their best form. A singer’s voice may fail in the middle of a concert performance.
  • A conductor or lead artist may accidentally select tempi that are too slow or too fast (possibly too fast for a soloist, causing coordination issues, if not serious failures). Such on-the-spot decisions (possibly due to nervousness or distraction, or due to excess tension, etc.) can typically not be corrected.
  • Nobody is perfect. Minor mishaps in a performance are almost inevitable.
  • There will be disruptions or at least distractions from the audience. These are often hard to ignore. I’m thinking of coughing, sneezing, whispering, breathing noises, noisy digestion, somebody unwrapping a fruit drop, the noise of clothing when somebody changes position in the chair, applause in unwanted moments, even somebody dying in the middle of a concert (I have witnessed such an event in Zurich);

Limitations on the Audience / Listener’s Side

  • It is typically not possible to follow a score (see below). For the average listener this may not desirable anyway (you want to see the action; why otherwise would you go to the concert or watch a video in first place?).
  • For many, it may be tough to keep the necessary attention for the duration of an entire concert. I have seen people fall asleep. So, one may miss interesting details. By the time one becomes aware of this, it is too late. Time can’t be wound back for re-listening (OK, on a YouTube video one can repeat and re-listen);
  • The atmosphere in a live concert (and/or the combination of audio and visual reception) tends to amplify the listener’s emotions (positive as well as negative). Especially for non-expert listeners this may have the effect that it is hard to keep an objective position towards a performance. OK, some may regard an objective view undesirable!
  • Similarly, depending on the listener’s personal mood / disposition, a live performance may easily “carry away”, over- or underwhelm a listener. Therefore, a concert experience may lead to spontaneous judgements that can’t be reproduced when re-listening to the same music & the same artists “objectively” (say, from a live recording of the same event on CD, with or without using a score);
  • In a related context, listeners in a concert audience may feel restrained in expressing their reaction / emotions. They may fear not being able to hold back their emotions / reactions to a musical performance.

The Other Extreme: Studio Productions on CD or Other (Digital) Media

Ever since music can be recorded, particularly with the advent of digital recordings, concerts / live performances have to compete with music reproduction via CDs or equivalent digital media. This change made music available at the listener’s convenience. It also altered the actual content:

  • studio productions are typically the result of recording a piece several, if not many, times. This is then followed by scrupulous cherry-picking and re-composing a result from numerous small snippets that satisfy the producer’s and the artist’s quality criteria. There is a certain likelihood that the result is more sterile / anonymous / less personal than a live recording or concert. To be fair: some artists try working with big takes, in an attempt to limit the number of “correction snippets” to a minimum.
  • In the case of “live recordings”, the final CD may still be the result of collecting the appropriate takes from two or three separate concerts. But in all likelihood there will be far less cutting etc..

CDs from Live Concerts?

Economic pressure led producers to try avoiding the costs for studio rentals and lots of extra rehearsals by progressively relying on live recordings. This can be a positive effect, as long as it serves the goal of providing a “live atmosphere”, a more vivid, realistic performance. It may indeed be the artist wanting to achieve a more lively, “realistic” result. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that in many cases the driver simply is economic pressure, i.e., the need to save costs. Such “enforced live recordings” may be detrimental for performers with serious stage anxiety. Famous artists (such as Martha Argerich) are known to be among these. Luckily, most have enough technical reserves to compensate for anxiety problems / nervousness.

It may also affect the result in cases where the acoustics are non-ideal, or where it is not possible (or too time-consuming) to place the microphones in an optimum way. One typical case for this last issue are live opera productions. Here, stage noises are unavoidable, good microphone placement is often impossible. Yet, these are the most likely candidates for live recordings, because the efforts and costs in producing opera recordings in a studio are huge. The best compromise may be non-scenic performances, but these are exceptions, unfortunately.

Perfection?

It may be the artist’s desire to produce a perfect result, given the technical possibilities. Listeners are now in a position to re-listen passages at will, and as often as they wish. With this, they may be meticulously watching out for minor deficiencies / mishaps. Therefore, artists and producers may feel compelled to strive for a perfect result. In my view, the top priority should be a realistic, lively result. A result that optimally transmits the composer’s or the artist’s intent / emotions, or the emotions that the artist wants to evoke. A clinically clean / sterile product cannot be the goal. When comparing digital studio recordings with live performances, it is worth remembering that there is a tendency in studio productions to aim for perfection. That isn’t necessarily a positive attribute.

Listening to CDs

Casual Listening

One option is to listen to CDs casually . The extreme would be as background music while doing other work. Obviously, this can hardly serve as a basis for judging an interpretation or a piece of music. I do use such casual listening, however —  just and only to (re-)familiarize myself with a piece. Or perhaps to get myself into the mood for more detailed auditioning.

Listening with Score

At the “other end of the scale”, I find that comparing interpretations of a given composition almost mandates following a score. One can hear so much more detail that otherwise would go unnoticed. One can see how an artist interprets the details of the notation. Plus, it is far easier to remember details of an interpretation if one has followed the performance in a score. This greatly helps comparing.

That said: even with a score (let alone without, see below) I find it necessary to compare movement by movement. I listen to a given movement in all available interpretations before moving on to the next one. This is possibly / ideally followed by an audition of the complete piece interpretation-by-interpretation. This helps understanding relationships between sections / movements within a given recording.

Comparisons or judgements without a score, i.e., based on pure familiarity (even if one knows a piece inside out, and even if done carefully and movement-by-movement) don’t give the same quality of judgement as with a score. Unless of course one knows the notation by heart, or if the listener plays a piece him- or herself.

Blind Comparisons?

When comparing interpretations, the ideal would be blind comparisons. I don’t find these easily doable on my own. At least, I try detaching myself mentally from interpretations that I’m already familiar with, for as much of an unbiased result as possible. If video performances are involved, one should also try avoiding “visual bias”. Even more so, it is very hard to compare a CD to a live concert experience, or vice versa.

That’s for the “technical part” of an audition / comparison. Keep in mind that there is no such thing as “absolute objectivity”. My personal judgements always also include a personal, emotional component, i.e., I’ll express how music “speaks to me”, or to my heart, if you will.

For an illustrative example on some of the statements made above (live concerts / videos vs. CD / studio recordings) see my post “Pergolesi: Septem verba a Christo“.



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