How much do we need to hear?

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Daniel Jaffé reflects on some provocative statements made by prize-winning author Alex Ross on the art of recording

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One of Bristol’s glories is St George’s, a former church converted into one of the UK’s finest concert venues, beloved not only by audiences but also by record companies for its attractively warm acoustic. It seemed appropriate, then, that on Sunday night St George’s hosted a discussion about the history of recorded music, between two distinguished guests from New York: Alex Ross, of The Rest is Noise fame, and Greg Milner, author of a new book Perfecting Sound Forever: The Story of Recorded Music.

Quite unmoderated, Alex and Greg talked fluently for about 40 minutes, with excellently reproduced music examples of recordings ranging from Elgar conducting in the 1920s to Elvis in the 1950s.

What they highlighted was the tension throughout recorded history between the audiophile tendency, whose ideal is that a recording should create the vivid illusion that musicians are actually present in the room; and, in the other corner, those who believe that since recordings are artefacts in their own right, producers should be free to manipulate the sound, whether in the name of art or simply for commercial reasons (why waste time creating a recording ideal for hi-fi sound when its main audience would be listening to it via transistors?).

By way of demonstration, Alex Ross then played a 1927 recording of Elgar conducting his own Second Symphony, followed by a ‘lifelike’ recording of the same work from 1991 conducted by Jeffrey Tate. I must admit my ears pricked up at that point, for it seemed to me from the brief extract of the Tate – a recording I’d never heard before – that the orchestral playing was not only polished but also expressive, and ‘sang’ in a way that was no way inferior to Elgar’s performance.

Yet here, Ross suggested, was a case of a recording which had lost something of the essential spirit of Elgar’s work through its sheer welter of detail; whereas the composer, even in the inferior 1920s recording, more clearly revealed his work’s rhythmic surge and its wild passion.

I felt sorry for Tate. Surely the point of a recording is that it’s something you live with. You may – as Alex Ross said – find it hard at first to get an overall grasp of the ‘picture’ when so much detail is revealed; but isn’t one of the pleasures of a recording to be able to hear something new each time you hear it and so steadily improve and deepen your appreciation of the music?

The Elgar recording seemed to me like a vivid charcoal sketch – powerful and immediate; but when you love a work, don’t you wish to see precisely more detail, to have a finer understanding of Elgar’s craftsmanship? There’s surely room for both types of recording in the collection of anyone who loves Elgar.

Daniel Jaffé is reviews editor of BBC Music Magazine