Live vs recorded music

Discussion of the relative merits of live and recorded music probably started as soon as recordings became widely available. As the fidelity of recorded sound improved, the discussion evolved somewhat, but it still continues.

One of my professors in college disapproved of recorded music, but frequently attended concerts. He did not even own a record player. I have never met anyone else who prefers live music to the absolute exclusion of listening to recordings, but I know lots of people who agree that there is an immediacy in live performances that recordings cannot duplicate. What’s more, recordings must be almost totally free of mistakes. Otherwise, listeners must hear the same mistakes over and over. That, in turn, has raised unrealistic expectations for live performances.

Today I offer another observation. You can hear more of the music in a live performance than on a recording. My high school orchestra performed the finale of Brahms’ First Symphony, and I played bass trombone. One passage gave me fits, and when I got a recording of the piece, I could not hear the sound of the trombone there at all.

Years later, a friend invited me to a concert where he was playing a concerto with a community orchestra. One of the other pieces was Brahms’ First Symphony. I have never heard a worse orchestra. Every oboe solo, in particular, met with disaster. And yet I found the performance fascinating. I thought I knew that symphony very well, having listened to it frequently on my own stereo and over the radio for years. And yet I heard not only that difficult trombone part, but many details of orchestration and counterpoint in the inner voices I had never known about.

At about the same time, the orchestra I was in played Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. Now, I have always thought the back row of an orchestra is the worst place to listen to music. The trombones sit much closer to the other wind instruments, which often have accompanimental parts, than to the violins, which usually have the melody. Community orchestras, it seems, never have quite enough strings anyway.

But I couldn’t help noticing that on my recording, not only did I not hear the inner parts played by the upper woodwinds, but the violas, cellos, and basses barely came through. That recording, at least, focuses so much on the violins that the entire bass line almost disappears, and whenever one of the woodwinds has the main melody, it is covered by whatever filigree the violins play.

I recently participated in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Having heard the waltz many times, I was surprised at the first rehearsal. When unison trombones play the main theme, it sounds on every recording that I have ever heard like there are persistent rests on the downbeat. Actually, there is a note there. In every measure.

It makes breathing tricky to play such a  long phrase at such a loud dynamic. Had Tchaikovsky written it the way it sounds on recordings, it would have been a lot easier to play. I don’t believe that all the trombones and tubas in all those professional orchestras that issue recordings omit the low notes on all those downbeats, but having listened to several since I learned how Tchaikovsky wrote the part, I can testify that I still cannot hear them at all.

So if you have a chance to hear a familiar orchestral piece live, go. You’ll hear things you can’t hear on your own stereo or radio, not counting any mistakes.


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