Five Rules For Avoiding Shitty Classical Recordings

PL115's Ring Cycle (Parts 1+2) at The Bushwick Starr, October, 2010.

PL115’s Ring Cycle (Parts 1+2) at The Bushwick Starr, October, 2010.

As y’all know (yes, I’m getting “folksier”), here at The Kugelmass Episodes, we play your requests.

Today’s question comes from alert reader Jenn Lindsay, whom you may remember from such posts as “On Faith, Art, and Revolution.” She writes, “I can’t always tell one classical recording apart from the next. If you have any tips on that (perhaps your tip would be: listen to them) I’m all eyes.”

I’d paraphrase her question like this: If you’re listening to a classical recording you don’t like, how do you tell whether it’s the composer or the performer who’s at fault? When is it worth seeking out alternative versions of the same piece?

It’s a tricky question, one that only arises in classical music, where an “interpretation” is supposed to balance individual expression with a correct reading of the music. (In jazz and pop, different versions of the same song are usually so different from one another that they might as well be originals.)

Here are some general guidelines. As usual, I’ve tried to avoid duplicating what other sites already do very well, so this won’t be a “best-of” list of good classical albums. For album reviews and best-of lists, check out Gramophone UK, which has an incredible online archive of them.

  1. In general, pick recordings made after 1970. Never listen to classical samplers or compilations for people studying, meditating, etc. 

    Unfortunately, before advances in recorded technology enabled multi-track live recordings, with noise reduction and stereo sound, classical music didn’t sound particularly good. (Everyone thought it did, but that’s because they didn’t have a choice.) A great example is Bach’s Cello Suites, recorded in the 1930s by Pablo Casals. This is a legendary recording. You can certainly gain some insight into the Bach suites by listening to it, but you won’t have very much fun. The tape hiss is distracting, the lows are flat, and the highs screech. Even a mediocre album of the same music, recorded in 2016, will give the casual listener more pleasure. Most of the big labels have re-released old, famous recordings like the Casals, claiming to have remastered them. These are mostly hatchet jobs, remastered on the cheap. They sound like what they are: the same inadequate masters, amplified carelessly. Don’t be fooled.

    Don’t buy, or stream, Beethoven’s Greatest Hits or Classical Music For Studying Volume 3 or anything else similar. Even if you somehow stumble on a great recording, you have no idea what’s coming next, and the music will all blur together. Life is too short for that.

  2. Optimize your equipment and play the music reasonably loud. You don’t need a lot of money to buy good equipment. I’m not going to bother listing what brands and styles to buy. That’s what a comments section is for! Tell me how much money you have, and whether you want headphones or speakers or what, and I’ll tell you what I recommend.

    Play classical music at the same volume you play rock music. Most people do not do this. They play rock music loud, and then play classical music as if they are trying not to wake somebody. That’s not what it’s supposed to sound like; at low enough volumes, pretty much every classical record sounds like a stray cat that won’t shut up.

  3. Listen for cohesive playing. In general, each section of the orchestra (or sub-section, if the piece is written that way) should play as one. You should not be hearing a shimmer of different violins or French horns playing slightly asynchronous notes. If you do, something’s wrong with the conductor, the ensemble, or the recording.

    You can hear this “shimmer” in Rachel Podger’s recordings of Vivaldi’s La Stravaganza concertos. They’re full of energy, but sound ragged, which is their undoing.

    Similarly, listen for the counterpoint of soloist and orchestra. The emotional qualities of the piece should remain consistent throughout, both when the orchestra is playing and when it isn’t. It should make sense to the ear: you shouldn’t feel, while listening to a concerto, like the orchestra just stops from time to time and says to the soloist, “Here, you play something, we’re on break.” The soloist shouldn’t be absurdly high in the mix, either.

  4. At the same time, avoid reductive interpretations. While the playing should be cohesive, the recording as a whole should contain multiple ideas in productive tension with one another. The first moment in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Pachelbel’s Canon in D are two excellent examples. Some conductors hear the beginning of the Fifth Symphony and think, “OK, got it, boom boom boom!” In fact, there are a lot of lyrical moments in that same movement, and a good recording imbues them with all the tenderness Beethoven is trying to evoke.

    Pachelbel’s Canon is the same way. The composition is divided, emotionally, between grief and regret and a gentle insistence on the business of living. If every single note is played as a lament, even after the key change, the sadness quickly becomes ridiculous.

  5. Trust your instincts when something startles or bores you. The second track of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” should not sound like someone putting in a new roof. Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony should not sound like a bunch of blithe instruments tuning up for forty-five consecutive minutes. Brahms isn’t dull, and neither is Haydn. If you’re startled or bored, the odds are good that the conductor and/or soloist(s) don’t understand the melodic ideas at play, and are therefore resorting to cheap bombast or playing to no purpose. This happens all the time in operas. Good opera singing does not make a big deal about every shift in octave, and it doesn’t sleepwalk through the recitatives (the talking), either.