The power of recording – from Callas remastered to our new Gramophone Award-winners
'This recording isn’t dead,’ said Andrew Walter, an engineer at Abbey Road. ‘It’s an alive recording. But all the people involved in it are dead – so it’s just the metals, and me. It’s a huge responsibility.’
Walter was, a few years ago, talking to me about remastering Pablo Casals’s 1930s recording of Bach’s Solo Cello Suites. But the comment is a fine definition of the approach, and achievements, of remastering engineers in general. Through painstaking attention to detail, superior sonic skill, application of the highest of tech and shrewd investigative work – science and art in perfect harmony, if you like – they are responsible for giving continued existence, indeed, breathing new life into so many of the past century’s greatest works of recording.
This month sees the release by Warner Classics of the remastered complete studio recordings of Maria Callas, almost unrivalled as an icon and inspiration among classical musicians of the recording era. Part of the reason for the project – the recordings have already been remastered twice – is that the original tapes are becoming increasingly difficult to work with, so the last opportunity to capture those historic sessions as brilliantly as today’s technology allows may be approaching. But the other reason is that that technology simply allows the detail and decisions of the day to be recreated as authentically as possible.
Ultimately, though, it is of course all about the music. In his insightful review of the set in the new issue of Gramophone - out now - Richard Osborne quotes Jon Vickers’s description of Callas’s ‘power to touch people to the core’. To my ears, not least listening in the Abbey Road remastering suite where the work was done, it was not the vivid drama that impressed most but the newly revealed detail and intimacy. Maria Callas’s recorded voice sounded more alive than ever before.
It might seem odd to be reflecting on a historic recording, made by people the majority of whom are no longer with us, when this special issue, and the Gramophone Classical Music Awards themselves, are about celebrating the new, the artists of today and, given the youth of some of them, of tomorrow too. Yet for me there is no incongruity. Ours is an art form in which the new finds itself, in almost all cases, joining the continuing evolution of how music is explored, performed and presented. Today’s acclaimed recordings may well be the revered historic documents of tomorrow: time will tell.
But one thing is different. It’s a foolish man who claims recording technology has now advanced to unassailable limits – of course it hasn’t – but we are at a point where recording artists and their production teams need not feel themselves in any way compromised by the medium. The clarity, the ability to capture atmosphere and precision of performance is today what the early pioneers of recording more than a century ago, even in the days of Callas and Walter Legge, could only have dreamt of. But, most importantly, the best of today’s performances are every bit as remarkable as any from the past. Do listen to as many of our Award-winners as you can – your time will be richly rewarded.