Inhumanly Perfect Performances?

"Modern recordings, for all their glory . . . have conditioned audiences to expect an inhuman degree of performance accuracy, comparable to what a recording studio's editing team can produce by patching together the best moments from multiple takes."—James F. Penrose, Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2008

Well, color me conditioned for perfection.

The January 25 edition of the Wall Street Journal featured James F. Penrose's review of Kenneth Hamilton's book After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (Oxford University Press, 2007; hardcover, $29.95). Through analysis of piano performance practice as it has changed over the last century and a half, Hamilton claims that the ubiquity of "perfect" recordings has coupled with critics' fanatical devotion to the urtext—the original score that supposedly contains all of the composer's original intentions. Modern recordings and overly revered scores have created a climate in which classical musicians are playing scared as they try to be as perfect and faithful as possible. To quote Penrose, Hamilton's book is a lament for "the loss of a passionate, individualistic, free-form performance style" in classical music.

It does not surprise me that modern recordings have helped replace musicians' quest for excellence with an obsession for perfection. As the artistic director and record producer of the male vocal ensemble Cantus (whose last seven CDs have been engineered by Stereophile editor John Atkinson), I feel the simultaneous need to create spontaneous and passionate concerts and recordings as well as note-perfect performances and immaculately sung CDs.

Recording is a problem. First and foremost, it removes the temporal aspects of music. For thousands of years, music existed only in the moment it was being performed. Small glitches in intonation could easily be forgiven and forgotten if the rest of the performance was compelling. Recorded music, on the other hand, must stand up to repeated listening. What begins as a single moment in time is turned into a permanent document that can be dissected until the end of days. To boot, modern audio equipment captures and reveals not only the beautiful nuances of a performance, but also its flubs and farts.

A musician's goal for any performance is to connect on a deeply emotional level with the audience. In a live concert, performers take their cues and inspiration from the energy of the hall and the audience. Recordings, however, are mostly made in empty studios void of applause or, often, of real acoustics. If much of what inspires performers to make spontaneous and daring music in the first place is absent during a record session, perhaps it is only natural that we turn to the musical score as the sole authority and standard.

The predominant wisdom is that a cleanly performed work will satisfy most people over repeated listenings. One of my favorite songs is "Cello Song," by Nick Drake. It moves me, sometimes to tears. But damn, I wish that cellist had played in tune at the end! Sometimes it annoys me so much that I have to skip ahead to the next track before the end of this great song. That's a shame. One more take and a few edits could have fixed it right up.

Given the ease of creating a perfect performance, there seems to be no good reason not to edit like crazy. A typical classical recording can have as many as 25 edits per minute of music, and today's software puts high-quality splices within reach of even amateur engineers. But if all we ever hear from recordings is perfection, then perfection is what we come to expect in the concert hall—cleaner recordings lead to cleaner performances lead to cleaner recordings. Eventually, the music is scrubbed to death.

The roots of this idea go back to Felix Mendelssohn and beyond. "It is inartistic, nay barbaric, to alter anything [composers] have written, even by a single note," said Mendelssohn. An argument could be made that this is precisely the reason classical music is unpopular with modern audiences. A typical performance is more of a museum exhibit than something vital.

Hamilton asserts that treating the score as an ideal was not always the predominate view in music. Virtuosos such as Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin, as popular in the 19th century as rock stars are today, would often improvise on a theme before busting into a Beethoven sonata. Almost all early opera arias included repeats during which the soloist was expected to improvise, and Mozart, Beethoven, and their contemporaries treated their concertos as vehicles for original, spontaneous cadenzas.

Classical music used to be populated with many musicians who strongly asserted their own voices while performing through-composed music. For them, the composition was merely the vehicle for the performer's vision and talents. The danger is that some performers put themselves before the composition, to the music's detriment. I came across a disco version of "Nessun Dorma" on YouTube that's particularly heinous. Good gravy, it's bad.

For me, in the musical debate of composer vs performer, the truth lies in the middle.

On one hand, it is the job of the performer to understand what the composer was after. All glimmers of original intent and aesthetic can be lost if the performer doesn't take the time to care about the composer or the composition. The performer may lose track of what made the music good in the first place.

On the other hand, a score is not music, just as a map of Niagara Falls is not the falls. The map shows us how to get there, but it has no falling water, no ability to inspire or awe. A good composer is able to create within each piece a set of rules—harmonic changes, development, architecture, etc. The performer must read between the lines and extract the piece's own interior logic. Compositions require, as Hamilton puts it, summarizing Liszt's view, "an inspired performer for realization." Historical research can also give musicians good insight, but again, worshiping conjectured performance practices of the past can create cults too wacky for even Tom Cruise to join.

And yet, for all of music's difficulties, sometimes, in the concert hall and on disc, the balancing act is managed. Sometimes, the performer and the composition put down their dukes and become a harmonious whole. Sometimes, a performance's calculation sets it free to form an ephemeral bridge between musician and listener. In such moments, we remember why music is a vital part of our lives. And isn't that perfect?