Menu Sidebar

The great classical music swindle – and why we’re better off now

“…the recording industry tried to fix in the collective imagination what individual musical works should be, like the totemic masterpieces of the Western canon (or rather, like those pieces of music that were turned into canonised totems, in part by the recording industry): a series of desirable, aspirational cultural and commercial objects, a collection of black-lacquer-magicked things that could be literally possessed by anyone who bought a record of Furtwängler conducting the Ring cycle, or Toscanini conducting Verdi. There was also a broader fixitive effect on the whole shooting match of classical music, which – arguably – was reduced by the heroic stage of the recording era to a library of unchanging, perfected icons instead of a living, breathing, ever-changing cultural practice.”

via The great classical music swindle – and why we're better off now | Music |

What the article doesn’t discuss is live performances. While I find Glenn Gould’s studio approach interesting, and love his recordings, live recordings are certainly more powerful. I think one can “fetishize” some live recordings as being especially powerful and unique. This is the case with rock and jazz as well: everyone familiar with the music knows that Bill Evans’ 1961 Village Vanguard recordings, or the Grateful Dead’s 8/27/72, 2/13-14/70, or 5/8/77 are masterpieces.

The broad access, which leads to the ability to compare versions is great, but it leads to another problem: that of having lots of different versions of works, and getting lost among them. I confess that this is something that happens to me with some works. But for others, I’m glad I have, say, Richter, Badura-Skoda, Schiff, Uchida, Lewis and Brendel in my collection when I want to listen to some Schubert piano sonatas.

Subscribe to the Kirkville Weekly newsletter:


  1. One consequence of the proliferation of “canonical” recordings of “canonical” pieces is that audiences compare live performances with the recorded version they have at home, usually to the disadvantage of the living players. This has one good effect on my choices as a performer: I’m more likely to seek out repertoire outside the canon so I don’t have to compete with an audience member’s memory of their favorite recording.


    • That’s an interesting comment. So you’d rather not expose listeners to your way of playing something they are familiar with? Do you think that audiences are uncomfortable with different approaches? If you consider that any audience is full of people with a variety of different “familiar interpretations,” I’d say it’s interesting to play anything they do know.


      • Not so much that they’re uncomfortable with differences (though that may be a factor) as that they’re disappointed that the live performance doesn’t measure up to their memory of the recorded one. Especially when you have a favorite recording, matters of performer discretion (tempo, dynamics, articulation etc.) come to seem “right,” and departures sound not just different but wrong-headed or inappropriate. “They’re taking this too fast!” Or too slow, or with not enough or with too much vibrato… It isn’t impossible to overcome these responses but it does set the performer a challenge that they don’t face when playing a piece most audience members don’t know.


      • Or the straightforward invidious comparison: “Not bad, not bad, but of course nobody could play the Schumann Fantasy like Richter.” And the performer, who has a copy of the Richter recording at home too, actually feels much the same, so this is especially painful.


  2. And a related issue when comparing live to recorded performances is our demands for perfect. This isn’t the case with most of the canonical recordings you refer to, but it’s become an increasing problem when the recorded ‘performance’ is a product of the editing room not the performer. Humans make mistakes, even the best of them, but it’s no longer acceptable to release a recording with even the smallest stumble or split note.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Writings about Macs, music, and more by Kirk McElhearn