Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Performances, Recordings, and Karajan

Given that I am now back on track in trying to write about Warner Classics’ Karajan Official Remastered Edition, one of my friends offered to loan me her copy of Richard Osborne’s book Conversations with Von Karajan. I accepted the offer, because I cannot recall having had any opportunity to read or listen to Karajan’s own account of how he approached his work. I also decided to read Osborne’s introduction, “Von Karajan: Profile of a Musician,” in the hope that I might encounter some objective third-party observations that might balance some of my own relatively jaundiced assessments.

One aspect of that essay particularly caught my attention, because it deals with an issue about which I have expressed some rather strong opinions in the past. This is the question of the value of recordings when compared with the experience of being physically present at a performance. Thus, my attention turned from casual to focused when I encountered the following sentence in Osborne’s essay:
When [Robert] Chesterman [in a CBC radio interview] put to Karajan the proposition that concert-hall sound was naturally superior to recorded sound, Karajan replied, ‘For whom?’
Karajan’s point was that even the best of concert halls have acoustical problems. So someone sitting in one of those problematic locations would probably be better off listening to a well-engineered recording. Osborne himself followed up with a comment about the “wretched … acoustics in large areas of the Royal Albert Hall,” suggesting that anyone who was actually interested in the performance of one of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts would do better to stay at home and listen to the radio broadcast.

I have to say that I am sympathetic with both Karajan and Osborne on this matter. For that matter, I find that my personal attitudes towards audience behavior seem to be getting grumpier as I progress from season to season; and I have to remind myself that, whatever the setting may be, odds are that only a small percentage of the turnout is actually there in the hall for the sake of attentive listening. Furthermore, I have to confess that my comments to the effect that capture technology still cannot achieve the bandwidth that listeners can accommodate may be too casual. I am not sure that I have actually seen an estimate of the reception bandwidth of the human ear, and my guess is that it varies from one subject to another.

Nevertheless, there are limits to my sympathy. There still remains the fact that a recording is a document of a performance; and I would argue that it is still the case that the document is distinct from the performance itself. Most important is that the document has a permanence that the performance lacks. Many would treat this as an asset, but it is worth considering the possibility of a downside. This has to to with the fact that individuals tend to listen to their recordings multiple times, rather than just once. This may be a good thing to the extent that the listener discovers new details with each successive listening experience. However, there is also the risk that multiple listening experiences will “burn” that specific performance into memory, inclining the listener to reject the possibility of a performance that takes a different approach to interpretation.

The other potential shortcoming of an audio recording is simply that it is limited to audio. One does not attend a performance with one’s eyes shut. Even if one is not explicitly aware, there are any number of visual cues that impact the listening experience. Admittedly, the impact of those cues depends heavily on the physical setting and where one happens to be seated in that setting; but, for just about any genre of music, watching music being made is a “richer” experience than simply listening.

Karajan understood this, and this is probably why he involved himself directly in film and video recordings of his performances. It is also why, on this site, I have consistently sung the praises of Jordan Whitelaw. Whitelaw appreciated the distinction between merely hearing and attentive listening, and he understood how visual input could influence the latter. The result was a long series of video documents of performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for a Public Television program called Evening at Symphony. Since I have not yet seen any of Karajan’s video documents, I shall not try to compare him to Whitelaw but simply emphasize that there is much to be gained from appreciating that we listen with our eyes, as well as our ears.

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