I listen to classical music recordings, but I also listen to popular music recordings. There’s no question that the pop recordings are more satisfying to listen to; they are heavily produced, compressed, and balanced to create a wide range of levels and exceptional clarity. Too often, classical recordings sound quiet and stale. (How many times have you switched to the classical station in the car and had to turn the volume all the way up?) Many classical recordings that have been made in the last five years or so are still not on par with the pop releases from the same year. Why is that?
For one, I think the classical music world values the “traditional,” and doesn’t always see the need to forge new paths in music production. That being said, many popular classical recordings are over 10 years old, and naturally the technology is not the same as something released in the last year. But what bothers me the most is how different classical instruments sound when they’re recorded. As a baroque cellist, I always find that recorded baroque cello sounds vaguely like a muffled, whiny walrus. That’s not how it sounded in the concert hall! Once I was talking to a harpischordist friend about how I hated the harpsichord when I was 16. “Had you heard it live?” he asked. “No…” I replied sheepishly. “Oh, that makes sense then. The harpsichord doesn’t record well.”
Classical music is best experienced live. Watching a performer can be illuminating and informative, especially when certain repertoire may be hard to digest for a listener. A performer’s body language, expressions, and demeanor can give us a lot of information about a piece, and can also enhance our experience as listeners. This is true of all music, though I think classical music is dramatically more effective with this crucial piece.
There are, of course, great classical recordings. I have a special place in my heart for Jordi Savall’s L’Orchestre Du Roi Soleil, an album I can listen to on repeat for hours while hanging on every note. I self-produced my own solo album, and it’s a wonderful tool to share my music with others worldwide. But it upsets me that many old, tired recordings become to the general public what “classical music” is. Especially for those on the fence about whether or not they like this stuff, it is absolutely worth it to take the risk and go see something live. And maybe not a huge symphony orchestra concert from the back of the concert hall—to me that’s much like listening to a recording, but that’s another topic.
What do you think? How do classical music recordings compare to live concerts? If you wanted to turn someone on to classical music, would you give them your favorite recording or take them to see your favorite ensemble live?