On historical recordings

A window into some important reflections for students and performers of classical music.

At a group lesson at The Royal Academy of Music, Aarhus, September 2020, we listened to recordings produced before the advent of mass media such radio broadcasting and the commercial recording industry, which changed the musical landscape dramatically from around 1920 an onwards. (See playlist below)

There was general agreement, that compared to today, these old recordings showed some clear tendencies:

  • There were much (very much) more changes in the pulse and especially the rhythmical values of single notes.
  • The recordings seemed more intuitive and more focused on expression/narration/contrasts.
  • There was much more focus on artistic communication instead of presenting a reading of the score with some kind of exact precision.
  • They played with a lighter technique.
  • Their hands are often not synchronized.
  • They was much (very much) more variation in the recordings of the same pieces.

A good example is “Butterfly”, played by Edvard Grieg himself. As a student, quite frustrated, said: “Why doesn’t he play his piece, in the way, he has written it?”. That led to the realization, that we have an idea today of a “neutral” performance, where first and foremost the rhythmic and dynamical values are represented (where rhythm is measured with almost mathematical precision) and afterward some emotion and characterization are layered “on top” of this understanding. This approach would probably have been very strange for the performers at the beginning of the 20th century to grasp.

These insights naturally lead to the question: “Why did it change”?

The answers were:

  • Focus on objective measures of skill, musicality, and perfection via the widespread phenomenon of competitions.
  • A professionalization of musical education, with subjects such as ear training, music analysis, and instrumental technical methods, where the music is broken down into parts, instead of viewing the musical piece as a whole.
  • Objectification and idealization of the musical piece: The idea, that all aspects of the performance in principle are to be based upon the musical text – maybe connected with some idea of, how the performance practice was at the time of composition. This implies, that there only will be one – or very few – right ways of performing the piece.
  • The modernistic “notational revolution”. For a lot of modern composers, the notes are to be performed exactly as written. Today, we re-apply this understanding also to music from earlier periods.
  • A rising ideal of perfection – there can be no “wrong notes”. (Is it worse to play a wrongly intonated note, or hit a wrong note at the keyboard, than to performing without a clear artistic vision of the piece? Today we seem to think so).
  • The recording and broadcasting industry made the studio recording an ideal for the performance.
  • The globalization effects: Everyone listens to the same recordings and Youtube-videos and students and teachers become more and more part of a global educational community with shared values and preferences.

At the same time, there was a sensation of “strangeness”, when listening to these recordings – it somehow sounded wrong. Reflecting on this afterwards, this was a clear sign, that a lot of the aesthetics involved in our intuitive assessment of performances are in fact controlled by factors, which lie outside of our conscious control. This is maybe not news, but it becomes problematic, if these factors are inhibiting and restraining our performances too much – and if we increasingly share more and more aesthetic values.

Try to listen to a variety of new recordings of a standard piece – the basic ideas of rubato, expression, and tempo normally doesn’t differ very much. A good example i “Wedding day at Trollhaugen”, by Edvard Grieg. Most (almost all) modern recordings have a “peasant-like” tempo, a heavy emphasis on the beats, and a very pronounced way of playing the faster passages. Not so with Grieg himself. He plays much faster, much lighter, and almost in one beat per measure. The resulting performance communicates a completely different feeling.

The questions arising from these thoughts are then: “What can be done”? or “How do we move forward”?

I asked the students to come up with suggestions, also for there own lessons, if they wanted to explore further in these directions. I have since become more focused on encouraging them to find their own ways of working with experimentation, and on an overall level to avoid the scenario, that the lesson is a place where 1: they play all the wrong notes, and 2: I give all the right answers.

But also at a personal artistic level, we can do some experimentation:

  • Try to break free of the notion, that pulse and rhythm in principle are equally measured as a starting point. Start with the musical idea and work from there
  • Experiment with new kinds of rubato
  • Experiment with not being together in order to explore new ways of expression (not synchronizing the hands for pianists, or the timing between musicians in chamber music)
  • Focus on story-telling, communication, and formation of meaning.
  • Accept, that it is ok to play in such a way, that it challenges your idea of an “organic”, “beautiful”, “well-balanced” phrase. immediately totally appealing to us. Otherwise, we end up reproducing our interpretational limitations.

The danger is, from my point of view, if we as classical musicians all end up agreeing, precisely what a good phrasing is and should be. Then our art form is going nowhere. Also try to think about, that the people not listening to classical music today are the same kind of people not listening to classical music in 1910. Only today they have a much narrower selection of performances to listen to. This could maybe be an overlooked reason for the dwindling interest in classical music.

Here are some of the examples:

Brahms: Hungarian Dance. Brahms (just for fun). 1889/1903


Debussy: Clair de Lune. Debussy. (1913)


Rachmaninov: G minor prelude. Rachmaninov (unknown – possible transfer from piano roll)


Grieg: Butterfly. Grieg. (1906)


Liszt: Liebestraum. Played by Emil Sauer. (1925)


Chopin Nocturne op. 27 no 2. Moritz Rosenthal (1935-36)


Chopin prelude in e-minor. Cortot. (1933)


And finally a small “time machine” experience with different recordings of the famous “Ich grolle nicht” by R. Schumann from today and back to 1902.

Kaufmann/Deutsch (2020 Live)


Wunderlich/Giesen (1965)


Schnabel/Schnabel (pianist unknown) (1904)


Cortot/Litvinne. (1902)


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