Recording and the Rise of the Performer as “Curator”

Thirty-plus years as a recording producer followed by seventeen years as a recording producer moonlighting as an exhibition curator and historian have left me pondering the relationship of recording and performance. I mentioned in an interview about working with Sir Georg Solti for Gramophone Magazine, that performers came in two, intersecting binaries: curators and interpreters. But this was only half thought out. What I meant to say was interpreters are made of the intersecting binaries of curators and re-creators.

To explain what I mean, let me take you back to the earliest days of recording. When the first musicians stood in front of the massive horn that transcribed sound to a wax cylinder, it was taken as a matter of faith that its purpose was to immortalise their performances. The evolution of performance can be clearly followed if one compares any single work in Philips’ CD series of “Great Pianists”.  Of Course, early recording limitations also had an effect on interpretation, but it is possible to take any work in the canon and follow its interpretative trajectory from one decade to the next. Despite the excellent curatorship of Tom Deacon in his choices of recordings to include, it is still possible hear the subtle transformation from the performer as re-creator to performer as curator. 

The evolving view that performers were potential interlopers, someone who was coming between the composer and the music, had already begun in the inter-war years. In Melos, the house magazine of the music publisher Schott from February 1928, Eduard Beninger wrote something so astonishing that it could be understood as expressing the concept of an emerging aesthetic within contemporary Austro-German music. In his review of recent works for the piano, he views music as something so objective, that a performer could at best, be only seen as an impartial conveyor of the printed notes on the page, or at worse, an intruder, a manipulator and exploitative narcissist. He praised the piano music of one of Schott’s house composers Ernst Toch, and even placed it above the piano works of Prokofiev. His reasoning was the view that Toch’s music was itself so objective, that even the most invasive interpreters could not wedge themselves between the printed score and resultant work. Beninger was writing at the height of “New Objectivity” – a movement that was not just dominating music, but also the visual arts and literature. Yet the very idea that specifically music was “objective” was something the recording studio could exploit three decades later.

Ernst Toch Sonata op. 47 first Movement Quasi Toccata, Christian Seibert

It would have been in the 1960s that a generation of musicians emerged who grew up with the sobering post-war view of music as something to be placed under glass and viewed without interference or manipulation from outside. To them, the recording studio seemed a Godsend.  They were aided by enthusiastic technicians and producers who were also transfixed by the idea of the recording studio producing the perfect representation of a work. I recall lively discussions with musicians regarding recording concepts such as depth of sound and the role, if any, the studio acoustic should play. A noted conductor who had recorded nearly the entire canon of German orchestral music for RCA told me that when he read a score, he heard the notes in his head without any acoustic at all and lamented what he called “Decca’s boomy sound that muddied the clarity of the score”.

The age of the performer as curator had arrived. Speaking as a former exhibition curator myself, I can confirm that no curator is ever really objective. There will always be a point of view, an aspect that needs emphasis that can be highlighted without changing a single fact. There is always that voice, that concept of tempo, that phrase or dynamic that can be manipulated in order to bring forward the personal point of view of the performer.

As an example, let me refer to two enormously gifted, imaginative performers who in their different ways were curators: Glenn Gould and András Schiff. Both had already crossed a line in baroque keyboard interpretation by recording Bach on a modern grand piano. Gould, a generation older than Schiff was born at a time when objectivity had elevated music reproduction to a science. “Art” with its common root to “artificial” was subjective and therefore, dishonest. A scientific approach to Bach keyboard music should convey in sound the dots on staff paper – nothing more and nothing less. If there was expression, it was intrinsic in the score and had nothing to do with the pianist. In a nod towards the different sound-worlds inhabited by harpsichord and piano, Gould recorded, rather than performed Bach. He gained a certain cult status with his inhuman ability to reproduce almost mechanically the notes on paper to audio. To aid his curatorial approach, he clipped the natural resonance of the modern Steinway, but left Bach keyboard works restricted to a single sound register.

Glenn Gould Bach Partita no. 3 A minor, BWV 827 opening movement: Fantasia

András Schiff arrived a generation later and though he was not an adherent to the idea of music as science, he was an adherent to the concept of performer as curator. He also preferred the monochrome of the modern piano, but combined it with the endless expressive devices of historic keyboard practices.  Few were as well-informed in historic keyboard techniques. Had the modern Steinway existed at the time of Bach, Schiff, more than Gould, showed how Bach would have performed his compositions. This brings me to my next point: the performer as “curator” sees the composer rather than the work itself as the starting point.

András Schiff: Bach two part Invention no. 1 C maj. BWV 772

This curatorial approach to performance became most prominent in the recreations of presumed authenticity with historic instruments and the concept of performer as historian. All the elements of the age in which a work was created were taken into account in performance.  Again, the artificiality of the recording studio came to the aid of the performers in their search for the ideal. Retakes, and editing not only compensated for the inadequacies and limitations of historic instruments, it became possible to rebalance works in such a manner that they could no longer be viewed as truly “authentic”. What to make of recordings of Bach and Mozart keyboard concertos played on historic instruments where the solo instrument is more prominent in the sound-spectrum than would have been the case in concert? Modern recording offers the advantage of lifting out the solo instrument so that it becomes an “equal” to the accompanying orchestra. In the concert halls or the music rooms of the aristocrats where the orchestra may have been placed in any number of different constellations, the balance between soloist and orchestra would not be what we hear today on modern recordings. It is the curatorial work of the recording studio and historically informed performers. Their efforts are not to be discredited and such curatorial work is as important in music as it is in museums.

Historic orchestral layout in Dresde

But this brings us to the second type of performer – the individual who has, in my experience, always been far more difficult to work with: the performer as re-creator. In this case, the performer almost never bothers with the historic curatorial aspects of a piece of music. They often know little or nothing of the composer’s actual biography and are hardly interested in the historical circumstance that may or may not have resulted in an individual composition. They come to a work like a miner finding a vein of gold, or a diamond in the rough, knowing they can take the lumps of dirt and turn them into something individual and valuable. Oddly, among pianists, I’ve found more women than men as “re-creators”. One need only think of Alicia de Larrocha, Martha Argerich, Yuja Wang or Elisabeth Leonskaja – all of whom offer a sense of a work being composed before an audience rather than merely being clinically reproduced. But there are also plenty of men as well: Radu Lupu being one whom I’ve already written about or Yefim Bronfman or on another level, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, not to mention pianists such as Shura Cherkassky or Jorge Bolet who belonged to a generation that still saw recording as immortalising a performance rather than a work. As a conductor, I could cite Claudio Abbado, a musician who was almost physically ill when asked questions about his musical decisions.  Lupu smarted under Svyatoslav Richter’s comment that he “played like a girl”. Perhaps male pianists like to imagine their approach to music is more rational and less emotional, seeing “rational” as masculine and “emotional” as feminine. Both re-creators and curators are legitimate and offer performances I would not like to be without.

A far more involved performance than Lupu’s Decca recording – this is live from 1974

As a former recording producer, my experience has been that the “musical curator” was easier to work with in the studio than the “re-creator”. The curators offered near-perfect takes and knew from the moment they sat down what was going to happen. The re-creators didn’t know from one bar to the next what they would do and we would finish with disparate takes offering concepts that varied widely in dynamics and structure. They hated “patching” – meaning covering a few bars to make sure a repeated mishap was corrected. Such “patches” performed by the curators slid into finished masters perfectly while the “re-creator” fretted and worried that it would be better to patch using entire sections, a transition, an exposition or a recapitulation. They had no idea what would come out and knew that playing just a couple of bars would be hit or miss. This was the case even when they listened to the take they needed to patch into. Later, in post-production, they would inevitably change their minds about which takes to use, making whatever patches we had a challenge for the editors.

One of two recordings of Chopin Ballades I would not wish to be without. A pianist who seemed to be improvising and composing the work in front of his audience
Nor would I wishe to be without this recording by Murray Perahia – the Ballade no. 4 starting 22.43 – a Chopin pianist who reminds us how close Chopin was pianistically to Mendelssohn.

As I mentioned, even the most detached and objective performing “curator” is an interpreter. They will have a specific point of view. For example, Murray Perahia’s superb performances of Chopin reminding us that the composer was closer to Mendelssohn than he was to Rachmaninov or Skryabin. When Solti conducted Bartók it was definitely more Bartók than Solti being offered. Such lineage is what every performer craves, though today it isn’t easy or even possible. For whatever aspiration of objectivity the curator may have, there will always be the subjective element that comes into play. With Solti, Bartók’s melodic lines were subsidiary to the structures of bars in a phrase and rhythm. We know that Solti knew and studied with Bartók, and more importantly, was a product of the same world that produced Bartók. Still, Solti’s worldview determined much else. Rhythm and structure remained his interpretative formula. The curator always has a key, a code or an idea that shapes everything they do: it could be Solti’s view that music was rhythm and structure, or it might have been the idée fixe of non-vibrato, or being historically informed.

Solti with the Chicago Symphony in 2. Movement of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste

I recall working with one conductor who had written a lengthy book on a counter-intuitive interpretation of Beethoven’s puzzling metronome markings. He had “cracked the code” and produced performances where all the fast movements were performed at a much slower pace while all the slow movements were faster. That too was impressive, interesting curatorial work and in the end, it resulted in a legitimate, though heavily curated interpretation.

The artist as re-creator is a far more complex creature: moody, insecure and shy. Spending time with them can be excruciating when it turns out their favourite pastime is watching silly shows on television or horoscopes or reading trashy novels. I recall a dinner of toe curling embarrassment with Shura Cherkassky, Alicia de Larrocha and Jorge Bolet hosted by my late colleague Peter Wadland. All three were of a generation that was suspicious of recording and cavalier about whatever printed edition had been handed to the producer. I remember Bolet switching harmonies in Chopin Nocturnes between the opening and the reprise. When challenged, he took out his glasses, looked at the score as if for the first time, and said:  “well, that’s the way I learned it” – and that was that. When Shostokovich wrote in his memoirs that he distrusted pianists because they all “basically play by ear”, he was certainly right in reference to his generation. But the great difference – and presumable what bothered him – was playing by ear meant the work was more important than its progenitor. To artists of that generation, the composer was secondary to the work. The performing curator sees things the other way around. But returning to the dinner with Cherkassky, Bolet and de Larrocha, nobody had anything to say until the conversation fell to Steinway serial numbers. At that point, the conversation grew very animated and serial numbers of certain pianos were bandied about like old friends and acquaintances.  Any hope of hearing their thoughts on Liszt, Granados or Rachmaninov were dashed. They had nothing to say about their repertoire choices, their preferences or thoughts as to why they preferred one work over another. If it weren’t for the marketing demands of recording labels, they would not have succumbed to “cyclitus” and only played the Ballades, Sonatas, Scherzi or nocturnes that appealed to them. What they had to say about music was said once they started to play. Bolet, to add to the sense of improvisation in performance, would occasionally modulate from one work to the next, so that key transitions felt organic and natural.

Pianists Noemy Belinkaya and Radu Lupu with my late colleague Peter Wadland

Perhaps it was the idea that the recording studio would produce the ultimate performance that inhibited them the minute the red light went on. Radu Lupu made me jettison some of his most poetic playing, thinking it sounded mannered or, as he once expressed it, “Brendelian”. I never quite figured that one out: was Brendel the only living pianist allowed to phrase with elastic freedom, or breathe in an upbeat? He was still hurting from Richter’s apparent put-down. It was pointless to argue and pointless to ask. He was not a good explainer, and possibly, I was incapable of understanding his logic. He stopped recording for all the reasons I’ve already cited: the fear of putting down something that was personal and having it immortalised. In an age of musical curation, Lupu’s performances were the equivalent of appearing naked at the Opera Ball. It was tragic, since had he been born a generation earlier, he would simply not have been intimidated. Like de Larrocha and Bolet, he would have loathed every second in the studio, but he would have got on with it. Bolet was laissez faire. He had gone through the school of hard knocks and was unimpressed by his late rediscovery. De Larrocha was fretful and never confident of her own unique genius. Takes were compared and inserted only to be taken out again. In the end, she was never happy with the final result and cringed whenever someone played one of her recordings during one of the interviews she hated giving. Like Abbado, she was incapable of presenting a rational justification as to her repertoire choices or her approaches to individual works.

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London

The recording studio also changed our entire relationship with opera. This became apparent to me while working as music curator at Vienna’s Jewish Museum. In an exhibition on Mahler, I discovered he would only consider looking at a musical score of a new work after he’d read the libretto and decided it would work dramatically. In addition, all operas performed at the imperial opera were in German regardless of their original language. Performing Verdi in Italian in Vienna was as unthinkable as performing Molière in French or Cervantes in Spanish in London or New York. Sure, a tiny elite would whoop in the conviction that they were able to enjoy Molière and/or Cervantes as written, but a tiny elite does not constitute much of a paying public. This was the case in all European countries.  In German speaking countries, opera was sung in German, in Italy, Wagner was sung in Italian, in Budapest, everything was sung in Hungarian. It resulted in singers being specialised in different roles and repertoire that would not be the case today.  For example, there were German singers who specialised in French or Italian repertoire, meaning tenors singing in German were not automatically relegated to Wagnerian roles as they are today. Richard Tauber and Jan Kiepura were superb in the operas of Korngold, Schreker and Strauss. When I was casting operas by Korngold, Schreker and Zemlinsky for the Decca “Entartete Musik” series, agents and casting advisors were constantly pushing Tristans, Siegmunds and Siefrieds on to me when what was needed was a German Rudolfo, Calaf or a Manrico. If there is one thing I regret about those recordings, it was their Wagnerian casting, when it should have been more sumptuous of sound, more lyrical of line and more yielding in phrasing.

A young Richard Tauber

But the limiting delineation of who could sing what role was not a direct result of recording, except in a strange sort of way, it could be argued that actually, it was. If one listens to opera recordings from the 1940s or ‘50s, there is a sense that the purpose of the recording was to capture the performance.  From the 1960s onwards, it became possible to put together “dream casts” based exclusively on voices. Suddenly, great opera divas were also singers with microphone friendly voices. As odd as it might sound, that was not necessarily the case before. I doubt Callas or Tebaldi would have made the cut had their careers taken place a couple of decades later.  Korngold preferred Maria Jeritza to Lotte Lehmann despite the fact that Jeritza, who made the role of Marietta in his opera Die tote Stadt, sings her own version of the famous Lute Song. Lehmann, on the other hand, with a far more beautiful voice sings the Lute Song as a duet, just as Korngold composed.

Maria Jeritza sings Glück das mir verblieb from Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt.
Lotte Lehmann and Richard Tauber stick closer to the score in their recording from 1924

Singers of the inter-war years may not have been as gym chiselled as today’s film and television actors, but then again, they weren’t built like triple-doored wardrobes who had to be wheeled out on stage where they just stood and delivered wearing funny costumes.

Maria Jeritza, the Maria Callas of her day: beautiful and admired as much as a singer as she was as an actress – the muse of Puccini, Strauss and Korngold

So when did opera stop being theatre? The answer is that it began when recording executives and producers (guilty as charged!) started putting together casts who sounded sumptuous in the studio without a thought of how they would deal with the role on stage. When their LPs (and later) CDs flew off the shelves, international opera audiences wanted to have these exceptional voices appearing in their local opera houses. Opera had moved from being Prima le parole and poi la musica to prima la vocia and forget everything elses.  There is a lot of magnificent music in opera that deserves to be wondrously sung. It is easy to argue that opera is first and foremost music and everything else, such as entering into the dramatic character of the role, gets in the way. Joan Sutherland once famously remarked that people who wanted acting should go to the theatre. Even in Mahler’s day, critics worried his policy of having the visual artist, Alfred Roller, designing sets and lighting would destract from the music. Their concerns mirror those of twenty or thirty years ago with the spread of Regietheater, when directors began to take production decisions that were previously taken by conductors. From the moment recordings entered the operatic fray, the language of the original libretto was the language of the recording. Exceptions aside, since there were also recordings of operas made in English, but these were rarely seen as products to launch internationally. This led to the sumptuous voices of recording stars forcing houses away from the tradition of singing in the local vernacular. If a “star” was to be engaged to sing in Warsaw or Salzburg, the rest of the cast had to fall in behind and relearn their roles in the language of the recording. Second houses in London, Vienna and Berlin started a cottage industry of offering all operas in English and German, but that inevitably led to a view that these houses only engaged provincial singers. Yet what used to make a great opera house was its ensemble. Recordings led to our present environment of opera houses having a flown in super-star or two with secondary roles coming from what remains of the house ensemble. One could hear similar casts singing the same opera across the world. In the meantime, surtitles have alleviated the apparent conflicts of language. These development are not meant to be understood as something bad – but it is something that recording has changed in our consumption and appreciation of opera.

But not only had opera suddenly become less theatrical with the loss of comprehension of what was being sung, it became less theatrical because singers who had made successful recordings were often less involved in the roles on stage and frequently displayed a comical lack of acting skills. Recording itself had become detached from opera as theatre. I won’t betray the trust of singers who had no idea of what the opera being recorded was about or even what sort of role they had. They came with their voice, with their mannerisms and their undeniable individuality that suited any and every role. Casts were international and arrived with a one-size-fits all French, German, Russian pronunciation – most of it excellent. It often left the role characterisation to the language coach – assuming we had a pro-active language coach. If the coach was merely reminding a singer they had sung a double consonant, the role and the entire mesh of character inter-action was lost. There are a number of opera recordings I produced that I cannot listen to because there is no obvious dramatic interface connecting the various singers. Studio time often meant that it was difficult to convey to a singer focused on vocal beauty that he or she was at that point in a duet where expression was more important than beauty of tone. Callas and Jeritza were loved because they represented opera as theatre, not because they had the vocal perfection of a boy soprano.  

Maria Callas as Medea at Covent Garden in 1959

At present, the recording industry is going through a certain transformation. With streaming and downloads no longer coming close to amortising the investment of a full orchestra and international cast, DVDs have become the preferred medium of capturing performance.  The result is a fascinating and welcome return to opera as theatre. Also the glut of recordings offering the central canon of western music has resulted in performers becoming more adventurous and expanding the repertoire.

a gallery of the Hanns Eisler exhibition at Vienna’s Jewish Museum 2009

The interpreter as curator is alive and thriving. I’ve recently heard of plans to present Wagner’s operas on “original instruments”. Attempting authenticity has allowed the curator to override the creative interpreter. At its worst, it gives us opera as something to examine as an object in a glass case, protected from climate, light and humidity. Yet, as I wrote, even the curator has a point of view that could be understood as an interpretation.  When I curated an exhibition on the composer Hanns Eisler, I chose to place a long letter from one of his former pupils in a glass case for all to read. It listed all of their mutual friends who had been murdered by Stalin and begged Eisler to say something.  Eisler did not respond.  As a curator, it was my choice to exhibit the letter – another curator may have chosen not to. I found a letter from the local East Berlin Synagogue to Eisler reminding him to pay his dues.  Everyone who knew Eisler assured me that Eisler had no truck with the local Jewish community and was not a member of the local synagogue. The letter was a begging letter that he most likely ignored…except, he kept it and it was part of his estate when he died. As curator of an exhibition in a Jewish museum, it was my decision to include this letter as well.  It may have been a total misrepresentation but it was my interpretation. My point is, curators are also interpreters. They are generally not re-creators. This binary is not mutually exclusive as there are those musicians who re-create and try to inform themselves, just as “curators” re-create, even if only in accordance to various formulas, or pre-conceptions.  The difference, I believe, is the phenomenon of performer as curator is somthing that has grown out of the recording experience, whereas the re-creator was what was expected of musicians before the advent of the gramophone. Are these developments bad things? Not really. Performing curators have been able to justify re-recording the canon countless times with new perspectives. Perhaps the recording industry had been slow in expanding the repertoire, happier to allow a new take on Beethoven rather than invest in a composer most people had not heard of. In any case, until recently, listening to music, purchasing LPs or CDs was expensive. Now, nearly all of it is on line. Fascinating that at a point when nobody has figured out how to monetize the recording of serious music, we seem suddenly overwhelmed with new recordings of works by unfamiliar composers from every corner of the globe and representing both the living and the long deceased. We’ve discovered excellent women composers, black and brown skinned composers, all of whom were kept out of the picture while labels released yet another cycle of Beethoven symphonies with a conductor who had rearranged the orchestra as it might have been in the Lobkowitz Palace, or cracked the sercrets of his metronome markings. Contemporary composers have finally registered the fact that works intended for performance may not get the public funding that used to be available, forcing those who write music to take a few steps closer to those who wish to “consume” it. In sum, I believe the recording industry has been – on balance –  good, but it is worth examining how it has changed performance and manipulated our expectations.