Monday, August 4, 2008

Comparing Recordings of Symphonies

One of the more subtle pleasures of classical music comes after you've become familiar with a few different symphonies and you have the opportunity to compare different recordings of the same piece.

There's no better way to get to know a great classical music work. In fact, after you've bought five or ten different MP3s or CDs to start your classical music collection, I strongly encourage you to choose your favorite two or three symphonies from your first crop of discs and get yourself an additional copy of each one of them.

A few thoughts on the process of comparing recordings: once you get your new recording, before listening to it, I suggest having one more close listen to your old one. Then, after listening through both, think about which aspects of your new recording are different, superior, inferior, etc., to your original one, and why? On the whole, which recording do you prefer, and why?

There are no right or wrong answers here. The point of the exercise is to enjoy the process of listening, and to gain even more familiarity and intimacy with a favorite work of classical music. When you hear different orchestras perform the same piece of music, you can get to know even extremely complicated classical music works on a much deeper level.

This process becomes even more fun if you have a favorite passage or two from a favorite symphony. I'll shortly be writing about my alternate version of Brahms' First Symphony, and I will do this exact exercise with my personal favorite passage from that work (it's in the fourth movement, where the trombones softly--and in my original recording, discordantly--play the key theme). This passage, which to me is the emotional climax of the entire symphony, turned out to be a big disappointment on my original CD, so I'm interested to see how my other recording handles that same portion of the work. Will they bungle it too, or will they nail it?

As you repeat this process with other favorite works, you'll start to notice subtleties about them that you never before perceived. This goes way beyond basic differences like how fast or how loud the orchestra plays. Rather, you might hear emphasis on certain instruments or sections of the orchestra on one recording that you don't hear on the other. You might even hear totally new parts--one conductor might really bring out a particular instrument at a certain point, while another conductor might ignore that same part. Conductors (and for that matter recording engineers) have wide discretion in how they produce a given performance.

Finally, think about how you respond on an emotional level to the two works. Does one version of a symphony really move you, while another simply doesn't? Why? A mediocre recording of truly great symphony can drive me to tears, and yet I will sometimes listen to a supposedly high quality recording of that same symphony and feel absolutely no emotional connection to the work whatsoever.

And of course, there's the occasional performance that is so bad that it drives me to eye-rolling and groaning (and not the good kind of groaning). Hopefully we won't cross paths with any such recording over the course of this blog, but if we do, I'll be sure at least to make an amusing and insulting blog post out of it.


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