Searching for the Perfect Recording

Music accompanies me in my daily life: when I’m working, or when I just want to sit back and listen, and immerse myself in music for an hour or so. I felt like listening to Franz Schubert’s last piano sonata today: the B-flat major sonata D. 960.[1] This is a long work, which lasts about 40 minutes, in four movements, the first of which is as long as the other three. I have twenty-two different recordings of this sonata, and I have one recording that features a pianist playing the work three times, on three different pianos.

So which one will I listen to? One of Alfred Brendel’s recordings? He’s one of the finest interpreters of Schubert on piano, and I have four by him, including a live recording from his final series of concerts in 2008. How about Paul Lewis’s recent version? This young British pianist has shown himself to be very sensitive in playing Schubert’s works. Or maybe one of the recordings I have for fortepiano, the ancestor to the modern piano, and the type of instrument that Schubert himself played. I have three of those, by Paul Badura-Skoda, Andreas Staier, and one I just bought by Jan Vermeulen. Brendel doesn’t play the repeats in the transcendent first movement, so his recordings are the shortest. I love the sound of the fortepiano, so maybe I’ll pick one of those. Or I could go back to a pianist like Wilhelm Kempff, or the more recent recording by Murray Perahia, who, while not a Schubert specialist, recorded a very moving version of this work. Or the brand new release by András Schiff, on fortepiano.

I don’t listen to this sonata very often; perhaps once a month or so. And I don’t give all the versions of this sonata equal play time, so there are some I’ve only heard once or twice, whereas there are others that I’ve listened to twenty times or more. But this is one of my favorite works, and I regularly seek out new or different versions of it. But why?

Call me obsessive.

Searching for something

Classical music is an interpretive art. In most cases, musicians just play the notes that a composer wrote down.[2] Yet there can be vast differences between two interpretations of a work. Many choices a musician makes can affect the way they play a work: the tempo, or speed of the piece; the dynamics, or volume of different sections; whether or not they play legato, where the notes seem to flow into each other or not; and how much rubato they use, the phrasing of the music through small changes in tempo. With the piano, one also has the sustain pedal to consider. Pressing this pedal makes notes last longer, but can make them blur together if it’s overused. And I’m only discussing here a single instrument; once you get into ensembles such as string quartets or orchestras, the number of elements that can differ increase greatly.

Then there’s the X factor, the indescribable je ne sais quoi that makes each performer unique, that gives their performances such a personal character. Good pianists play the piano and sound like the composer they’re playing; great pianists inject some part of themselves into the music, and make it their own. Some pianists are highly recognizable. Give me a blind test and I’ll pick Glenn Gould out of any line-up; I can identify Alfred Brendel fairly reliably, at least when he plays Schubert or Beethoven; and Murray Perahia’s Bach is unique[3].

Most people who listen to music pay little attention to these subtle elements of music, and probably don’t need to; they may enjoy the music all the same. But part of my obsessiveness has led me to learn about them, to listen differently. Serious classical music listeners[4], many of whom may also have experience playing an instrument, also notice the small details. I review classical CDs for MusicWeb International,[5] and, as such, get to listen to lots of different recordings. When I hear a new version of a work I’m familiar with, I listen closely, seeking out the points that may make it better than others, or that may relegate it to forgetfulness.

If not for the obsessives like me, the classical music industry might collapse. Klaus Heymann, head of Naxos Records, once said, "There’s pretty much a consensus in the industry that there’s maybe a million [classical music] collectors in the world when you define a collector as someone who buys at least 10 CDs a year."[6] I asked some fellow classical music fans about which works they have the most versions of. One has 60 recordings of Debussy’s Études; another has 139 recordings of Bruckner’s 4th symphony; and one person admitted to having 150 recordings of Widor’s 5th organ symphony; and one said he has about 250 recordings of Wagner’s Die Walküre. My own collection – my 100,000-track iTunes library – pales in comparison to that of some people.

But what am I looking for?

I don’t exactly know what I’m looking for in different versions of recordings, but I keep searching, because they are different. This search has led me to explore different styles, different approaches, different ways of interpreting musical language. Through the dozens of works that I love most, each of which I own in ten or more versions, I’ve found how subtle differences in performance can make the music feel different.

Now, as I write, I’m listening to Leonard Bernstein’s powerfully moving 1966 recording of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2. I’m always enchanted by the pastoral opening with woodwinds, and the majestic seven-note theme that dominates the final movement, framed by lush strings and a raucous brass section, gives me goosebumps in the closing sections of the work.[7] The simplicity of the final theme, and the richness of the orchestration, turn this simple tune into one of the great statements of orchestral music, and Lenny Bernstein milks it for all he can. There’s something special about this recording; perhaps I could analyze it to find out what makes it unique, but I’d rather just turn the volume up and let the sound transfix and transport me. There are plenty often great versions of this symphony, and I have several. But something about this one pushes my buttons.

Not every work has as much power as this symphony, but many do, when you get to know them well. Beethoven’s late string quartets; Schubert’s song cycle Wintereisse; Bach’s St. Matthew Passion; Mahler’s third symphony; I could name dozens of others. Yet every performance, every recording, of every one of these works is flawed in some way. There is no perfect recording; but there are lots of great recordings.

So why do I keep looking? Music is an essential part of my life, and it moves me deeply. I’m also curious, and want to learn more, to hear more music. About fifteen years ago, I went on a Mahler kick. I had never really gotten his symphonies, thinking that they were just schmaltzy music that sounds like Hollywood soundtracks. Only when I really took the time to listen closely, and to listen to recordings by a dozen conductors and orchestras, did I finally get Mahler. The music clicked, and I understood what it was all about. Now, my Mahlermania has calmed down, and I don’t seek out any new recordings of his symphonies, even though new Mahler CDs are as common as junk mail. I’ve learned what I want, and I have a library that I can choose from when I want to listen to one of them.

But there are other works that remain elusive, where I still want to know more, to hear yet another take. That Schubert piano sonata is one such work; it was one of the first CDs I ever bought, and I’ve acquired a few new recordings of it in recent months. Perhaps, after I’ve explored it more thoroughly, I’ll get to the point where I don’t need any more, and I’ll just listen to the ones I have.

There are some works which aren’t recorded often, and this means that the search may never end. Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata is one such work; I love it immensely, in part because it’s so cryptical. There are a couple dozen recordings of this dissonant piano sonata, and I have most of them. Unlike, say, Beethoven or Mozart, there is perhaps one new recording of this work in any given year. I’m more than happy to explore new recordings of this sonata, to see if any pianist has really figured it out.

So, have I found any perfect recordings?

There is no such thing as a perfect recording, of course. The search for the perfect recording is a journey that leads the listener through a series of discoveries of the subjective nature of music. You learn just how different two interpretations can be, but you also learn that, even if you don’t care for a specific musician’s approach, there may be valid reasons for their choices. I’ve heard some duds in my time, but once you get up to the A-list performers, it’s simply a question of taste.

Sure, some performers get fetishized, their recordings get better reviews than they should, perhaps because they’re good looking, or live a public life, or live a strange life.[8] There are famous conductors and musicians whose recordings are workmanlike, but who are nevertheless revered, because the media created them; there are even some pop stars who flirt with classical repertoire, selling music because of their names, and not their talent.[9]

But we, the listeners, change as much as the different recordings we hear. Sometimes, you may have a disc that you didn’t particularly care for when you first heard it, but, when you put it on again, five or ten years later, it suddenly makes sense. This is an endless journey of discovery.

All these words shouldn’t suggest that there’s anything complicated about classical music, or that you need an education to enjoy it. If you like what you listen to, then listen to it. You don’t need to know about sustain pedals, legato or cadenzas. The perfect recording is the one you like.

  1. The "D" stands for the number in the Deutsch catalog of Schubert’s complete works; Otto Erich Deutsch created the first catalogue of this composer’s works. Similar numbering systems are used for other composers who wrote a lot of music: for Bach, it’s BWV, for Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, or Bach Works Catalogue; for Mozart, it’s K, for Köchel, the musicologist who first catalogued his works; for Beethoven, opus numbers are generally used.  ↩
  2. Some works include improvisation, such as in baroque music, where basso continuo, a type of accompaniment, is notated very simply, requiring that performers improvise. Cadenzas in concertos are also often improvised; this is a free section of a piece where an orchestra stops to let a soloist riff. In some cases, these are written in scores; in others, performers may play cadenzas written by other musicians, or improvise their own.  ↩
  3. Perahia suffered a hand injury in 1990, and couldn’t play the piano for a while. He studied the music of Bach, who he had never recorded, which "gave me a goal and tremendous comfort."  ↩
  4. I’m not suggesting that some people don’t listen to music seriously, but I can’t think of a better word for people who, like me, are attentive to the music to the point of wanting to own different versions of their favorite works. It’s not quite the same as mere collectors; we collect the music for the music, not for the rarity of a specific disc.  ↩
  5.  ↩
  6.  ↩
  7. See this article by Paul Serotsky on MusicWeb International. "And what musical material is the source of all this luminous splendour? I wish I could tell you. However — even after all these years — my pattern-loving synapses are still working on it! Part of my problem is that this coda always inflames the hedonistic synapses, and — well — you just have to give in to those, don’t you? "  ↩
  8. Glenn Gould is certainly one of those performers whose strange life has contributed to a legend surrounding him. He is arguably one of the finest pianists who ever recorded music, but many people dislike his style, which was idiosyncratic.  ↩
  9. In 2006, Sting released Songs from the Labyrinth, an album of songs for voice and lute by the Elizabethan composer John Downland. In my review I stated how much I disliked his performances, but I also said, "I have to admit that it is entirely possible that Sting’s performance is closer to actual Elizabethan performance than we in the 21st century can imagine. …it is very possible that this performance accurately reflects the majority of Elizabethan minstrels."  ↩