17 October 2011

The Unanswered Question

Is it a good idea to hear a recording of a work before hearing it for the first time in a live performance?  That’s a question which gets asked time and time again and my usual response is along the lines that, as some of my most revelatory musical experiences have come from hearing a work for the first time in a live performance, I suspect that the impact would have been considerably lessened by having heard the music on record first.  So I’m generally against the idea, although it’s not a straightforward matter, as I was reminded only last week.

These have been manic weeks in the run-up to my end of year examining tour to South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.  In addition to the Gramophone Awards, I have been criss-crossing the UK catching up with relatives, friends and renewing professional contacts while, back in Singapore I have been at the Conservatoire working 18 hours a day to get the last few weeks of the semester’s lectures finalised and the examination paper set and checked.  Bundles of CDs have come for review in the pre-Christmas rush, and Naxos has kindly sent me 75 of their latest releases to contemplate for review - in the car and on long plane journeys my portable CD player has been working overtime while my Bose headphones have been eating up AAA batteries by the bucket load.  All this frantic activity has left no time to post anything on this blog or for any serious concert-going. Most distressingly, I missed the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the Berlioz Te Deum at the beginning of this month.

Not that I particularly like the Berlioz Te Deum, but it gets so few outings that, rather like Havergal Brian’s Gothic and how Mahler 2 used to be (until every Tom, Dick and Harry decided to perform it), a live performance is special enough to be a significant occasion.  More than that, I was keen to hear how Claus Peter Flor handled this archetypically French repertoire.  I hugely admire Flor’s Beethoven and Mendelssohn, remain indifferent to his Dvořák and Martinů, but if I’ve ever heard him perform French repertoire I can’t remember.  On top of that, I was very anxious to see what he managed to get from the SSO; an orchestra which can blow hot and cold, but is all too often on the lukewarm side of tepid.  I’d been asked to review the Berlioz concert, but the Gramophone Awards put paid to that, so I was forced to rely on second-hand reports.  And that’s where the issue of pre-concert preparation comes in.

I heard first-hand reports from three very different people, but so divergent were they that I still have no idea what I would have made of the performance.  I know critics often disagree, but you can usually get a pretty fair picture of the event even when there are differences of perception.  But the responses I heard really did not tie up at all, and for that I blame their pre-concert preparation.

Firstly, there was my neighbour.  She’d never heard the work before and had no idea what to expect.  She loves choral music, she’s an ardent supporter of the SSO, but I suspect she had vaguely imagined the Berlioz Te Deum would be a bit like a Schubert or a Bruckner Mass.  She was horrified by the sheer volume of sound hurled at her.  It was, she said, “dreadfully noisy” and “didn’t seem to know where it was going. The choir was all over the place”.  I find that a little difficult to believe. 

Next came a report from a colleague who had conscientiously swatted up on the work by listening to every recording he could lay his hands on.  He was Hishat a loss to put into words his ecstatic enthusiasm for the performance, and to hear him talk you would assume it was one of the greatest performances of all time (which, with the best will in the world, I could never accept). “How much better was Flor’s performance”, he said, “than any recording”.    

My third report came from a Berlioz Te Deum fanatic; one of those people who would cross international boundaries to hear it performed. He never listens to a recording of it, believing it to be a work you can only experience live.  His opinion?  “Dreadful!”. The sound was a “blur”, there was no detail and the performers were struggling to cope with the music.  “It was so cramped and one-dimensional, lacking excitement and life”.  I can’t imagine that with Flor at the helm.

So why such a divergence of views and why so obviously influenced, in my opinion, by their pre-concert preparation?  The problem here is that while Berlioz, of course, never intended the work to be recorded, neither did he intend it to be performed in a concert hall.  He devised it as an experiment in the effect created by placing the many diverse forces in different parts of a large building; “A musical portrait of a Gothic Cathedral” is how one person has described it.  So it is just as inappropriate to have it performed live without the spatial element as it is to have it performed on record, notwithstanding the artificial effects which can be implied by surround-sound technology.  In short, both the man who familiarised the work through listening to CDs and the man who knew it from performances which followed more faithfully Berlioz’s stated intentions, were at a disadvantage.  They were bringing pre-conceptions which clearly clouded their judgement.  It may have been wrong to put the work on in a concert hall with all the performers crammed together in one place – I can’t imagine how that glorious opening dialogue between orchestra and organ could possibly have made any sense with them all sitting together. (A vivid recollection was playing the organ part in a performance in Llandaff Cathedral where the orchestra and main choir had been put at the west end and all the audience chairs turned round to face them; I was told the effect of the organ bursting over their heads from behind them was devastating.)  But was my neighbour correct in her assessment?  Might not a taste of the work on record beforehand have given her an idea of what to expect and thereby reduced the initial shock of the performance she heard live?

Although an ardent advocate of live over recorded music, I have to confess that I do rely on recordings to introduce myself to unfamiliar music, having learnt by bitter experience that paying good money to hear unfamiliar music live for the first time can be a huge mistake.  From the Naxos bunch this time, I am glad to have been forewarned that Richard Strauss’s juvenile piano trios (8.570896) are execrable and deserve their place in the rubbish bin of musical history, I might otherwise have been tempted to go and hear them live.  Similarly, good as it is to have a native New Zealand composer - Jenny McLeod - represented on disc (8.572671), her music is too much like insipid early Aaron Copland to interest anyone who is not passionately supportive of New Zealand arts.  And as for French composer René Maillard, my initial shock at reading what must be the most dreadful booklet notes ever included with a commercially available disc was only outweighed by my horror at such miserable and morbid music (8.572623).  Against that, though, is the joy of hearing some really interesting reconstructed works (including a violin concerto) by Respighi despite second-rate orchestral playing (8.572332), some unutterably marvellous solo clarinet playing from Eduard Brunner (8.572470), hearing three of Kenneth Leighton’s greatest organ scores brought to life by Greg Morris (8.572601) and, revelatory and fantastic Chausson brilliantly played by the Wihan String Quartet and the Meadowmount Trio on what must count as one of the finest Naxos releases ever (8.572468).  I only wonder why it took over a decade for this fabulous recording to travel from the studio to the CD.  I urge everyone to buy this intensely lovely disc.

That, though, does not answer the original question, and while hearing a work for the first time in a live concert is the ideal to which we should all aspire, in the case of the Berlioz (and I’m sure a great many other works), it can be both a major disadvantage and a major advantage.   So I offer a clear, concise and unequivocal answer to the original question; I have no idea


  1. Hey Dr Marc u should come back to YST and teach us, we miss u !

  2. ....and after that you can come back to Welling - 'coz I miss you!! Pete

  3. Ooooh! What it is to be loved. And I thought only my three-and-a-half year-old daughter had unclouded admiration for me. My sole companion here in Jo'burg at the moment is a lovely bottle of Pinotage - I miss you all!