Old vs New Recordings

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Old vs New Recordings

After years of listening to classical music, I finally have to admit that I really don't enjoy "old" recordings. Even when the interpetation is "superior" and the playing inspired, the sound quality usually puts me off to such an extent that I prefer to stick to a more contemporary recording - even if it is inferior, from a performance point of view. I don't mean that I will dump a 1950s Wilhelm Kempff Beethoven recording for a recent Lang Lang - I think I'd rather listen to static than that - but I would take many others in his place, if only because the actual recording is so much better. A tinny sound in a shallow acoustic is alright from time to time, but generally speaking I like to hear a piano sound like a piano. That's half the pleasure, isn't it?

Old? Let's say anything before 1970. But that's really up to the individual listener.

I am tempted to say that this must be the same for everyone else, but when I read through critical recommendations I begin to wonder if it really is. For many critics, it clearly isn't. Not only do they have no problem in recommending old recordings over new ones, they also have an irritating habit of over-praising the sound quality of the recordings. The Gramophone Guide is full of comments about this or that transfer being given a wonderful bloom, or tremendous clarity and so on. And when you actually listen to these wonderful recordings, you think, yes, just as I thought: an old recording with all the usual deficiencies of an old recording. Is that, I wonder, because so many of these critics grew up with the "old" recordings and learned to love them before they became sonically obsolete? Some of these recommendations, by the way, are from the 1930s.........hiss, crackle, twang.

In addition, performance styles have changed so markedly over the years that it is often hard to really like something from a different era even if you discount the sound problems. (Think of Big Band Mozart, or the different kinds of voices you used to find in opera.......)

So my question is this: to what extent are you affected by the poor sound quality of "old" recordings? Does it really bother you or do you find it easy to overlook? 

RE: Old vs New Recordings

Much of what you say chimes with my experience, Eliza. Too often critics talk up how good dated sound is, or how excellent the remastering has been. I don't have great audio equipment, but even so, I find it hard to imagine it sounding radically different on superior players. And as you say, part of the pleasure of listening is purely sensory.

It puts me in mind of one of my great bugbears, which is how a recording can be made or broken by the quality of recorded sound it's accorded. Some quite average performances are more engaging because they're so flatteringly recorded, whereas some superb performances are held back (or even near-ruined) by poor sound. I suppose that's one of the reasons why a so-so performance live in concert tends to be so much more involving than a so-so performance on disc (whether well or badly recorded) - there's been no distortion via the medium of recording.

Odd too (for me at any rate) is being prepared to put up with acoustic deficiencies in very old recordings (e.g. live Furtwangler issues from the 40s) because you almost know what to expect and feel that it's part of the experience (in F's case, making music in wartime... it was dangerous... the roughness of the sound almost evokes that... etc). But mediocre recordings from the 60s and 70s just sound, well, mediocre. That period seems less far away than WW2 but many stereo recordings are now a good 50 years old. Perhaps, then, it's partly a question of expectation of sound from the 60s and 70s?

And of course it has to be said that a good many modern recordings are terrible. I thought the disc of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade with the Mariinsky under Gergiev issued by Philips in 2002 - praised by the Penguin Guide for its excellent sound - was a sonic disaster (particularly galling given how exciting the performance was). Likewise, many old recordings really are very good indeed, with few allowances to be made for flaws. I've just had the new DG Originals issue of Russian music conducted by Igor Markevitch with the Orchestre Lamoureux. The items on it were recorded between 1958 and 1960, so early stereo; and while nobody would mistake them for modern recordings, their sound is pleasingly vivid and communicative: the detail in Glinka's Russlan and Ludmilla overture is as good as any recording I know, old or new. Markevitch helps that to be so, with his drive and clarity, of course, and so another factor to be considered might be how far recorded sound matches the sonic approach of the interpreter. Mostly I guess it can be a bit haphazard, but when the music-making and the sound on offer is complementary it can work in a way which makes you forget when the disc was made.

John

RE: Old vs New Recordings

I'm totally with you, Eliza. I strongly believe that CDs are recording products and they have to be judged as such. A poor recording is a poor product, whether the performer(s) involved are the best possible. On the contrary, an audiophile recording can reveal so many details (sometimes, better or closer than a live performance) that is more rewarding as an actual listening experience than an old recording, where you try to...guess what is actually happened.

In the old recordings, the major problem is the distortion of the actual tone of the instrument(s) or voices involved. Then, the ambience (the space given to the recording vis a vis the actual performance), the dynamics, the attaca (the speed of the changes in the score) and, least but not last, the clarity of the recording.

However, Eliza, there are bright exceptions of good transfers (even in SACD) of audiophile character for recordings of mid fifties to late 70s (e.g. Wagner's Ring with Solti) and there are some bad or poor or mediocre recordings of the 80s and onwards.

Parla

RE: Old vs New Recordings

Eliza Frost wrote:

...I like to hear a piano sound like a piano. That's half the pleasure, isn't it?

As I become older, I'm finding that my interest in hearing historical recordings is increasing - I can't ignore poor sound quality, but tolerate it for short spells.

For example, I'm currently enjoying Clifford Curzon: The Complete Decca Recordings.  To quote Presto Classical's website: "Published for the first-time ever in any format are 8 pieces including a
Medtner Fairy Tale, ... and 5 pieces by Brahms. These recordings survived as 78rpm test-pressings in Clifford Curzon’s private collection and have
been made available for publication through his family."

I'm a complete sucker for this king of thing.

RE: Old vs New Recordings

Well, I do enjoy high quality recording sound, definitely coming as close as possible to the "real thing" is an integral part of the musical experience. Obviously you also need the equipment (at the very least headphones) to match the quality of the recording. Invest in high quality headphones, that makes all the difference. For a higher budget a high quality amplifier and speakers are a must, or else you probably wouldn't hear the difference between a 70s and 2012 recording. Many recordings from the 60s by Decca sound fabuluos, much more spatious than recent DG recordings!

However, most performers today don't match the musicality that performers used to have. No present-day performer sadly surpasses some of the Furtwängler recordings, and neither can modern Wagner singers remotely match the singing of post-war Wagnerian singing up to maybe the early 70s. Present-day Verdi performances are mostly unsatisfying too, nothing compared with great Verdi singing and orchestral playing by the likes of Callas, Simionato, Caballé, De Sabata, Giulini, Abbado...

So, it's a mixed bag really...

RE: Old vs New Recordings

I would question the basic assumption that older recordings are inferior to newer ones. Newer recordings might be better sonically but I am not sure whether they sound as natural as the older ones. A case in point was a purchase of a used CD set of the 60s recording of Britten's opera "Albert Herring" on Decca. I was amazed by how natural it sounded relative to, say, the latest Colin Davis "Messiah" on LSO Live on SACD. I would add that my reaction soon passed as I got on with doing what I had planned to do all along - listen to the music.

RE: Old vs New Recordings

Hello Eliza, and welcome to the Forum.  Good subject for a post too, with plenty of scope for controversy.

Like Hewett-dick and some others, I am all in favour of good 'life-like' recordings but less than convinced that the passing of time has led universally to progress.  In particular, in many recent recordings of orchestral music, especially those made 'live', whilst one hears a piano that sounds perfectly like a piano, timpani that sound like timpani, clarinets that sound like clarinets etc, all too often I do not hear an orchestra that sounds 'real', in particular one coherently placed in any real acoustic space.  This was something one could take for granted in the recordings produced by John Culshaw, Walter Legge and Volker Strauss for example.  An interesting test is increasingly available to those lucky enough to live near centres of musical excellence.  Now that so many recordings are made 'live', often to the great advantage of extra frisson in the performance, it is often possible to hear on CD a performance that one has actually heard in the concert hall.  That for me has been the ultimate test of a recording (The Sheherezade with Gergiev mentioned by John Gardiner is a case in point.  Fabulous concert, dreadful recording).

Eliza, you mentioned Kempff's 1950s Beethoven sonatas.  I consider myself fortunate indeed to have hear Kempff play Beethoven sonatas three times in London (and amongst the greatest musical experiences of my life).  I can assure you that for all their age the give a true impression of what Kempff's piano actualy sounded like, very light in the bass, very light pedalling.  On the other hand the much later (70s and 80s) recordings of Schubert by Radu Lupu, though on the face of it technically far superior, do not sound a bit like the sound I heard many times in the concert hall from Lupu. As so often, it's a more complicated issue than it seems at first sight.

Which brings me to something else you mentioned, Eliza, that has not been discussed further so far in the thread. You refer to the change in performing style of music (from 'big-band' Mozart to the modern lighter style, was your example). Of course, what we hear in older CDs is a composite of older style recordings and older-style performances.  In many cases the one perfectly captures the other.  Pehaps the drier, clearer recordings of today, with a wider dynamic range, are in part at least a refecltion of changing musical preferences, not only of listeners but also of performers. 

I think we are incredibly lucky that so many recordings for at least the last 50-60 years have documented so splendidly the performances of their day. For me at least, it is those performances, new or old, that I hear. When the recording, new or old, is good then that is a wonderful bonus.

Chris

Chris A.Gnostic

RE: Old vs New Recordings

Thankyou to everyone for your replies so far......

In retrospect, it might have been better to focus purely on recording quality, rather than old v new. After all, you can't hear the oldness or the newness in any direct sense; you can only infer it. The really interesting question - the relevant question - is the extent to which poor sound quality interferes with the overall enjoyment of a recording; and also, of course, what we mean by "poor sound quality" in the first place. I concede, at any rate, that there are plenty of good "old" recordings and plenty of naff "new" ones. (Personally, I dislike the highly acclaimed Paul Lewis recordings – super-resonant and boxy and punctuanted with mysterious thumping noises.) Perhaps, as some of you imply, I shouldn't have generalised.......

Chris, you raise a very interesting point about "realism" with regard to orchestral sound. As I don't (can't) attend many concerts, I haven't really considered that aspect before, but I can certainly imagine what you mean. It depends, I suppose, whether we want our recordings to sound like the sonic stuff they are recordings of, or whether we want something else instead: a purely artifical creation which is (obviously) derived from an actual performance, but isn’t completely answerable to it.

Interesting, too, to hear what you say about Kempff and Lupu. I’ve always been a bit disappointed with the latter Schubert recordings – too much base, too bottom heavy. But I will certainly go back to the Kempff for another look. His Schubert collection (another dodgy recording, 1970s) has always been top of my list. 

Eliza

 

RE: Old vs New Recordings

A fairer comparison between the sonics of older analog and modern digital recordings is to listen to them using appropriate replay equipment.
There is a healthy market at the present time for mono cartridges.A early 1950s Decca LXT long playing record for example sounds superb through this device,I know as I have one.To hear a so called historical CD is just not the same listening experience.
To hear recordings from the mid 20th century at their majestic best a good turntable with a mono cartridge,or mono switch on Pre amp is required,and ideally the rest of the equipment being valve based.

RE: Old vs New Recordings

I must totally disagree with Eliza and agree with Chris that the passage of time has not led to a universal improvement in recorded sound quality with far too many so called "live" recordings being made in venues which are just not suitable for recording, the Barbican being the most obvious example. Equally Berlin recordings made in the BPO's hall are no match for those made in the Jesus Christus Kirche.

The finest ever sounding recordings were made by Decca from the late 1950s to the mid to late 60s in the Kingsway Hall, Walthamstow Town Hall and the Sofiensaal in Vienna, whether on LP or CD and I would also include many of the Reader's Digest recordings produced by Charles Gerhardt and recorded by Decca's Kenneth Wilkinson, many of which were issued in superb LP & CD transfers by Chesky. EMI's Kingsway recordings from this period too are superb.

I recently played one of my favourite LPs, Britten with the ECO in the Frank Bridge variations. The ECO's playing and the recording are simply stunning as it is too on the YPG with the LSO on the other side. I have not heard a modern digital recording which can match this for sheer presence, immediacy, stereo imaging or sense of being there. Like history man my equipment is valve based as was the recording equipment in those days with relatively simple microphone techniques. 

RE: Old vs New Recordings

Don't exaggerate, 33lp. Of course, there are superb recordings in the mid 50s and 60s, as for certain orchestral and Opera works, but, Elisa mentioned the Piano solo, Chamber Music too, which, by far sound better in more modern recordings by specialized labels.

However, even Orchestral or Opera works sound much better in proper recordings in SACD format (either old or new), particularly by labels such as Exton, Channel, Pentatone, etc.

One has simply to keep searching and finding what sounds better with his/her sound equipment.

Parla

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