Throughout the twentieth century the classical music world has been conditioned, and to a worrying degree, harmed by the equalizing effects of competitions and increasingly sophisticated recording techniques. These two factors have led inexorably to an ironing-out; a flattening of musical autonomy. I must concede that, if this is true, my reaction against this increasing uniformity is also, by default, a direct result of the status quo.
These are natural developments (might retardations be a better word?), which to a large degree reflect the times in which we live, consequently there is no blame to be allotted; but I do think the time has come for many musicians to think more carefully about what they are doing. The effects of music education - or do I mean indoctrination - competitive values, and an increasing pressure to be accurate above all else due to ever more elaborate editing techniques and ever more sensitive microphones have created a set of musical norms, which I suspect many musicians are only tangentially aware of.
A couple of years ago I was listening to an early recording of mine (always an uncomfortable affair) and simply didn’t recognize myself: As an inexperienced pianist, the producer took rather more control over my performance than I would be comfortable with today and the result, whilst accurate, smooth and technically competent, bears no resemblance to what I sound like on stage. If I am denied the right to take risks, go with the moment and yes, mess-up, I am left with a rather emasculated version of myself. All those little inconsistencies which make me me had disappeared leaving a rather anonymous Danny! At that point I made a conscious decision to forgive mistakes in my recordings in the name of musical integrity. I would far rather use a long take with imperfections so long as it is exciting, than neurotically patch stuff worrying what the critics will make of it. If Cortot is one of my pianistic heroes, why should I not forgive his shortcomings in myself? Art is not perfection!
Of course, it is also true that recording is not the same as performing. From the audience perspective every human ear has a little tiny editing suite inside which forgives a multitude of sins, the microphone is far more judgemental. I suppose the decision whether to leave in imperfections depends very much on what the performer thinks the object of recording is: I was discussing this matter with a violinist who edited virtually every note of a disc - his opinion is that a recording represents an idealised performance, for me it doesn’t ring true as an idealised performance doesn’t exist. Indeed, without wishing to dis a colleague, his recording compared to his concert performances was left somewhat wanting. Interpretations are evolving beings, apt to change from day to day, from mood to mood, therefore a recording can only represent a snapshot in time. When my live performances go well I have the feeling of freshly improvising learnt notes and it is that, precisely, which I now seek to capture in recording. There are, of course examples of great musicians whose performances remained virtually unchanged through their careers (Medtner, Lipatti to name a couple) but these are in the minority.
I would say that there is a difference between not being capable and not caring. In other words, if Cortot was satisfied to allow recordings with an astonishing number of inaccuracies it was, perhaps, because his musical conception was so refined, so finely honed that issues of digital accuracy became a secondary consideration. Personally, I wouldn’t wish to hear them any other way, so inspiring and inspired they are. The problem today is that people listen to CD’s more than they go to concerts. The pressure this puts on artists is that their live performances are inevitably compared to their often highly edited recordings.
As I write this, Christmas approaches fast. I propose we performers all give ourselves the gift of forgiving our own tonal trespasses in the name of interpretational comfort; we may all find that our blood-pressure has dropped by new year. Merry Christmas!