To Listen or Not to Listen

(by: Sarah Quantrell  B.Mus.  M.Mus.)


Scores for many years were once the main source for performers to learn music from.  With the introduction of recordings however, this technology provides us with another source of information that can be used when preparing a new piece of music.  The difficulty now is that whilst listening to recordings as part of the learning process is useful, it can also stifle originality and has changed how we perform, even in a live setting.  Performers should choose which recordings they listen to carefully, ensuring they have a large selection, and use them to understand the ‘spirit’ of what the performer intends, not merely try and imitate what they hear.  


‘Why have you decided to interpret the music like that’ I ask the singer.  

‘Because that’s how Fleming does it on the recording’ they respond.  

If I had a penny for every time I have heard these words or words to that effect…well you know the rest.  At least this person was listening to Fleming; with the introduction of You Tube, Soundcloud and other social platforms to share recordings, who knows what we could be listening to.  

As we proceed through the early twenty-first century, we have reached an age in which recordings are the focal point of our musical enjoyment.  The ability to record has existed for over a century and during that period has had a dramatic impact on the way we perceive music.  For many years, the idea of studying recordings and the recording process as an academic subject has been unpopular; performance practice, although a popular topic, was restricted to historical texts such as printed score and manuscripts.  Over the last few decades however, this has changed and an increasing amount of research has been done on an array of topics using recordings because it has become a useful text.  But what does this mean for performers themselves?  The question this article addresses is could and should recordings be used by performers when learning music.  And if yes, what is the best way to approach recordings.  

The Academic View

There are many reasons why the study of recordings can be of use to us.  Robert Philip (a notable scholar in the field) writes, “one of the most valuable aspects of early recordings as research material is that they enable us to examine the development of modern style, and to realize how recent many modern habits are” (Philip, 1998, p 536).  Timothy Day (former curator of Western Art Music at the Sound Archives of the British Library) also believes that “recordings don’t answer important questions about the history of music.  But they do stimulate the formulation of new kinds of interesting questions” (Day cited in Keefe, 2005, p 257).  It is evident that there is great variety amongst different recordings of the same pieces, as “there can be no performance without some interpretation” (Janet M. Levy cited in Rink, 1995, p 150).  Having access to diversity in interpretation is a useful tool to a performer, as it provides us with new ideas that we may not have considered.  “The contradictions and conflicts of meaning that occur as ambiguities in music, once they have been recognised and understood, are empowering for performers and listeners…the choice of the performer to let ambiguity ‘live’ releases the power to shape and enrich musical experience” (Levy cited in Rink, 1997, p 168).  Performing a piece can be likened to analysing a piece, in that only a single analysis can be carried out at one time.  To analyse the piece in another way, one would have to do another analysis.  In the same sense, a single performance is only one way of performing the piece, excluding other interpretations.  Recordings in theory then should give us access to numerous interpretations.  With this in mind though, we must take into consideration that we are hearing just one interpretation in any single recording, and therefore it is important to listen to a selection of recordings.    

Although recordings can provide us with much enjoyment and useful information for both performers and listeners, they also cast doubts on many people.  Botstein writes:

Perhaps the recording is not a documentation of performance…but some other sort of act of self-representation in which the visual and the interaction with the public – two vital keys to performance, historically considered – are absent.  Recording may not even be entirely reliable documents of interpretative strategy, unless one is willing to concede the plausible idea that live performance no longer remains at the centre of musical culture, thus making the recording the primary musical statement and thereby reducing the live performance to the status of rehearsal and marketing device.  

(Botstein, 1999, p 3).  

Botstein is not the only writer to show concerns over recordings.  Stenzl writes that “in recording studios interpretations are produced solely to be stored on sound carriers: ‘studio recordings’…are actually artificial material” (Stenzl, 1995, p 693).  Through various studies, however, there is a unified opinion that more recent recordings show “a trend towards greater power, firmness, clarity, control, literalness, and evenness of expression, and away from informality, looseness and unpredictability” (Philip, 1992, p 299).  Performers more recently are striving for technical perfection as their performances are no longer heard just once, but are around for all to hear for an infinite amount of time.  This has been at the cost of spontaneity, making music dull and homogenised.  The value of this “is that it forces us to question unspoken assumptions about modern taste, and about the ways in which we use it to justify our interpretation of earlier performance practice” (Philip, 1992, p 2).  

The concern is that now it is not just listening to one recording that gives us one interpretation, but listening to several recordings of the same piece can now give us just one interpretation.  So is there any point in performers listening to recordings at all as part of their learning process given that the research suggests that if you’ve listened to one, you’ve listened to them all.  And ultimately, there is a strong risk of producing yet another sterile replica.  

The Performer’s View

Through a study I undertook in 2007 where multiple recordings of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto were analysed, (specifically the pianist), the academic viewpoint was generally updheld.  The earlier recordings, such as those of Rachmaninoff, Mosewitsch and Joyce, show greater variety in their interpretations than the later recordings, such as those of Lang Lang, Ortiz and Mischtchuk.  Not only have the performances become more homogenised, but we have seen a change in the overall tempo of the work, performances becoming slower over a period of time and a change in dynamic contrast and balance, where this has become more refined over time.  

The exception to the rule in all of these findings is the recording by Stephen Hough (2004).  His recording stands out from the other sample recordings.  Hough’s performance, although one of the most recent recordings, is actually one pf the quickest, and although technically precise throughout, displays a great amount of fluidity, shape and musicianship, really doing justice to the piece.  Although he employs many modern techniques of performance (for example in his use of rubato), his performance has more in common with the early Rachmaninoff recording, where he interprets articulations and dynamics along with the tempo in a similar manner.  In the sleeve notes to the recording, Hough writes:

I was given [Rachmaninoff’s] recordings of his concertos, long before I heard anyone else play them, and when I did eventually hear some modern performances I was genuinely puzzled.  Where was the characteristic rubato of the composer’s playing?  Where was the flexible, fluent tempos, always pushing forward with ardour?  Where was the teasing, shaded inner-voices forming chromatically shifting harmonic counterpoint to the melody?  And what about the portamento slides in the strings?  It was like eating a traditional dish far from home and missing the correct ingredients.  What is a pesto sauce without parmesan?  What is sushi with brown rice?

(Hough, 2004 p 2)

Hough obviously does not agree with many of the interpretations in the more contemporary recordings, and it seems that he wanted to base his performance more on the performance that Rachmaninoff first gave.  Even though the two recordings hold many similar characteristics, there are still many differences and it is very easy to tell the two apart.  On speaking with Stephen Hough further he writes:

I grew up with Rachmaninoff’s recordings, but not just of this piece.  In fact I (deliberately) haven’t listened to him playing the 2nd for about 20 years now.  For me what was important was the general style of his playing (and some of his contemporaries) rather than the particular way he played this piece.  The way he used rubato and sound together, how tempos worked, the contrast between tight rhythmic control and a free lyricism.

(Hough, 2007)

This explains why the recordings sound similar but not the same.  For Hough it was not about sounding the same as Rachmaninoff in this recording, but putting his piece in the context of the time, which is why Hough listened to Rachmaninoff’s performance style in general and that of his contemporaries, to understand performance at that time.  He wanted to capture the spirit of the music.  His influence, therefore, has not come directly from Rachmaninoff, but will be quite varied, as we have found that styles at the turn of the twentieth-century were much more varied than they are now.  Jeremy Nicholas in the review of this recording has also commented on this aspect of the performance, stating that “unlike most of his peers, Hough takes the composers at his word (scores and recordings) in matters of tempi, dynamics and the performance practice of Rachmaninov’s musical language” (Nicholas, 2004,  

Many different conclusions can be drawn from these findings.  Perhaps this recording  by Stephen Hough is an anomaly and recordings of this work will continue to sound similar, as they have done for the last thirty years.  Perhaps, this recordings is the start of a chain of events where we will begin to see more variety in recordings as we are becoming more aware of their influence.  Hough clearly wanted to achieve a historical sound to his performance, typical of the time when the piece was written and he used early recordings to assist with this.  But what about those of us who are less focussed on historical implied performance?  Is there still merit in listening to recordings, both historical and more recent?

Speaking on a regular basis with performing musicians, there is a general consensus that listening to recordings assists with the ensemble element of music.  As a repetiteur, I find that listening to recordings of the operas I am performing to be incredibly useful.  Piano reductions of opera scores are quite often unreliable and sometimes unplayable, and being able to hear a full orchestra play what I am supposed to be emulating is invaluable.  It helps me understand timbre, articulations, dynamics and what is actually important to the overall effect.  Understanding how what I am playing fits with the singers as well is incredibly useful and means I can turn up to a rehearsal better prepared.  

A baritone I work with listens to a lot of tenor arias because, as he has a lower, heavier voice, he wants to understand how to lighten it where necessary.  He does not intend to or simply cannot replicate the sound he hears, but the ‘imitation’ process is intended to build beneficial characteristics into his own voice in his own way.  This is an altogether different reason for listening to recordings as he’s not listening in order to learn the piece, but to work out why and how certain timbres of the voice are created.  This can then be applied to his own repertoire where appropriate.  

The Musical Director Richard Cartmale raised the point of symptom and cause in relation to the use of recordings.  He has been asked by a student whether they should laugh in the aria they were learning at a certain point in the piece as an international singer does so in a recording they have, and the student liked the effect.  Cartmale agreed that laughing would be very effective, but pointed out that the laugh in the recording was a result of acting and should not be artificially inserted.  The advice he gave was that it would be acceptable to laugh at that point providing the aria was acted accordingly so that the laugh was a natural reaction.  This casts a different light on Stenzl’s view that studio recordings are artificial.  Even if the recordings was of a live performance (I am unsure whether it is or not) and the laugh created naturally, Cartmale is suggesting that the use of the recording could result in an artificial interpretation.  The advice is, by all means take certain interpretations from recordings and use them in your own performances, but create the context for those interpretations.  

So What Does This All Mean?

Botstein states that “technology has done more than merely influence habits and standards of performance” (Botstein, 1999, p 3).  Recording technology has changed many characteristics of performance, but this has not been without benefit.  Through recent research, we are conscious of the effects recordings have on performance and with this understanding, we have the opportunity to become more deliberate in the decisions we make.  Clearly there is merit in listening to recordings as part of a performer’s learning process.  However, it must be approached with caution and used as a tool selectively.  Listening to a variety of recordings with a chronological spread is vital (as we have seen, solely listening to recent recordings could results in a negative effect) in order to open ourselves up to countless interpretations.  What Hough, Cartmale, Philip, Day and others are all saying is that recordings should not be used to mimic, but are best used in order to understand the spirit of the music.  Variety is key, as well as keeping an open mind.  


Books and Articles

Botstein, Leon, ‘Musings on the History of Performance in the Twentieth Century,’ in The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 83, No. 1 (Spring 1999), pp. 1-5

Day, Timothy, A Century of Recorded Music: Listening to Musical History, New Haven and London, 2000

Day, Timothy, ‘The Concerto in the Age of Recording,’ in The Cambridge Companion to the Concerto by Simon P. Keefe, Cambridge University Press 2005

Katz, Mark, Reviewed Works, ‘A Century of Recorded Music: Listening to Musical History,’ by Timothy Day in Notes, 2nd series, Vol. 58, No. 2 (December 2001), pp 383-385

Philip, Robert, Performing Music in the Age of Recording, Yale University Press, 2004

Philip, Robert, ‘In Vino Veritas,’ in Early Music, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Aug 1998), pp 535-536

Philip, Robert, Early Recordings and Musical Style, Cambridge 1992

Philip, Robert, ‘The Recordings of Edward Elgar (1857-1934): Authenticity and Performance Practice’ in Early Music, Vol. 12, No. 4 (November 1984), pp 481-485 and 487-489

Rink, John (Ed), The Practice of Performance.  Studies in Musical Interpretation.  Cambridge University Press 1995.  

Stenzl, Jurg (translated by Irene Zedlacher), ‘In Search of a History of Musical Interpretation,’ in The Quarterly, Vol 79, No. 4 (Winter 1995), pp 683-699