The Lovely Imperfections of Live Music Recordings

The Music

Sviatoslav Richter: Richter Rediscovered (RCA); also Richter (Schubert) Royal Festival Hall Concert (BBC Legends Series)

Iren Marik: Bartok in the Desert, the Art of Iren Marik (Arbiter Records)

Simon Barere: Simon Barere, The Last Recording Sessions (Cembal D'amour)

Vladimir Horowitz: Horowitz Live and Unedited (The Historic 1965 Carnegie Hall Concert) (Sony Classical)

Commentator Sara Fishko has a problem with the way music recordings are manipulated into perfection. She finds herself drawn more and more to recordings of live performances. Fishko is a cultural producer-at-large for member station WNYC.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Sara Fishko of member station WNYC also wants to preserve what's authentic. We leave you tonight with her thoughts.

SARA FISHKO reporting:

Listen.

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: Hear the audience coughing?

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: Music to my ears.

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: I didn't even realize it until recently, but when it comes to classical music, there's a real pattern emerging lately in what I've been wanting to listen to. It's not the music so much or even the performing artists. What I seem to be concerned with is where and how the performances have been recorded. What I have been craving is music with no intermediary, no record producer as such, no electronic editor, no obsessive artist selecting the best takes and instructing the engineers to how to assemble them. No safety net. I want imperfection.

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: It started, now that I think about it, on the 90th anniversary of the birth of Sviatoslav Richter last spring. At that time, I went back to re-examine the great pianist's recordings. Now Richter is a musician who didn't much like the recording studio, so an awful lot of his records were made at concerts, some of them by record companies, but even more by fans who snuck in with miniature tape machines and came away with gold.

(Soundbite of music from Sviatoslav Richter)

FISHKO: The atmosphere is of something captured rather than manufactured.

(Soundbite of music from Richter)

FISHKO: Richter, being a bit of a daredevil, there is also the unmistakable aura of risk in the playing. Genuine stick-your-neck-out, will-he-make-it? risk.

(Soundbite of music from Richter)

FISHKO: Wrong notes? Sometimes. But they don't interfere with the passion of the music-making.

(Soundbite of music from Richter)

FISHKO: From there, I went to Erin Merrick(ph).

(Soundbite of music from Erin Merrick)

FISHKO: An Hungarian pianist of some repute before World War II, Merrick fell into obscurity after the war and wound up in California playing mostly for her friends. She recorded her favorite repertoire in her living room, just played it straight through and left the tapes to a record producer who has just begun putting out these unedited, unaffected performances of sheer peace and beauty.

(Soundbite of music from Merrick)

FISHKO: In Merrick's case, the purity is what's captured, the unselfconscious beauty and wisdom in the playing.

(Soundbite of music from Merrick)

FISHKO: By chance, a recording called "Simone Barere: The Last Recording Sessions" came to my attention soon after.

(Soundbite of music from Simone Barere)

FISHKO: The pianist Barere died of a cerebral hemorrhage in mid-concert on the stage at Carnegie Hall in early April of 1951, and these recordings were made just a few days before that in late March.

(Soundbite of music from Barere)

FISHKO: He never had a chance to listen to them, so they were never tampered with, never edited.

(Soundbite of music from Barere)

FISHKO: They are now precious documents that reveal that even under less than ideal conditions, his unbelievable technique was intact.

(Soundbite of music from Barere)

FISHKO: The lyricism is there, and listen to that passage work.

(Soundbite of music from Barere)

FISHKO: No editing, no retakes. Talk about risk.

(Soundbite of music from Barere)

FISHKO: These recordings unearthed by Barere's son, Boris Barere, are out on CD for the first time.

(Soundbite of music from Barere)

FISHKO: `What is going on here?' I ask myself. And I think the answer, at least in my case, lies in a craving for a kind of authenticity that has been lost, not just in classical recordings but in general. After all, it's so easy now to correct ourselves. Our work is e-mailed and Word documented, Final Cut Pro'd and Photoshopped practically out of existence. We spend our days manipulating reality, many of us, saving it, refining it again, sending it off, getting it back, looking at it again and again.

Nearly 50 years ago, Glenn Gould pronounced the concert dead. `Long live the recording,' he said. And he was right, of course, for his era. The record did need to be recognized as an art form, and he was a pioneer in that. He took record-making to its absolute apex. I must have listened to thousands of hours of Gould records at the time and for many years after and still do. But we're in a new era now, one that Gould no doubt anticipated, all of us preoccupied beyond measure with electronic fiddling.

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: And when I listen to music now, I know too much. I want to picture someone playing start to finish and hear the results. I want to know that an artist can still burst at the seams, like Richter, and slither across the keyboard, like Barere, and be in supreme control, like Merrick, without the help of, well, anyone--just them and me having an artistic experience.

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: Everything, and that includes the misnamed reality TV and the newly mainstream documentary film, the war and the reporting of the war and, yes, even the cathartically comical fake TV news reports with which we end our days and, yes, even this report, too--everything is manipulated. What I seek from recordings now is a monumentally unmanipulated experience.

(Soundbite of music from Vladimir Horowitz)

FISHKO: Happily, such things an still be found, such as all of the aforementioned, as well as this Vladimir Horowitz recording, live and unedited, from 1965. Performance like these provide thrill seekers, such as myself, with a genuine unmediated rush.

(Soundbite of music from Horowitz)

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

FISHKO: Sara Fishko is cultural producer at large for WNYC in New York.

That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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