Saturday, November 19, 2005

Effects of recording

The biggest effect of technology on music, both recorded and live, is the microphone. Classical singers still perform live without them, with maybe possibly sometimes not. I thought I heard the effects of miking recently at the Washington National Opera.

But all recordings are miked. I think in spite of their low sales there must be some significant money in recording. The largest recent classical record seller has been Luciano Pavarotti, closely followed by Cecilia Bartoli. Maybe I’ll have to subscribe to Billboard to find out the true story.

In the nineteenth century orchestras and singers played off each other by continually beefing up. Orchestras got bigger and bigger and singing technique got heavier and heavier. I recall singing in the chorus of a performance of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, composed around 1900 and notorious for its huge orchestra. I recall looking down into the pit from the side and seeing how close the musicians were to each other. The violins had to play the same bow strokes, which they are supposed to do anyway, of course, or they would poke one another in the eye. It was very cozy. From our seats above the orchestra we could see the soloists’ mouths moving as the only evidence that anyone was singing. The recent performance of Strauss’ Daphne at Kennedy Center was not quite this bad.

There is a movement for Sprechstimme in Gurrelieder, the earliest example, I think, and it was performed to great effect by the great Wagnerian bass-baritone Hans Hotter.

I digress. The point of this story was that Gurrelieder represents the extreme of big orchestras and singers trying to sing big enough to blast over them. This resulted in a vogue for heavy singing which may today be dying out. Witness, for example, the relative weight of our two best sellers: Luciano still retains a heavy technique, but Cecilia does not.

Heavy singing is very risky. A friend sent me a dvd of Pavarotti, Marton and Milnes singing Verdi’s Il Trovatore. All three are Verdi singers. I think his superb technique and the bright color of his voice always allowed Luciano to sing heavy Verdi roles with sufficient legato to avoid any damage to himself. Eva Marton oversang almost everything she did, and completely unnecessarily. She was always the loudest voice on the stage, and still she pushed her voice louder. James Morris, who always sings everything with a superlative legato, is an example to follow.

Sherrill Milnes had already lost it by the time this performance was recorded. You can hear that he cannot control the color on his high notes. For a better example of his Verdi singing see the dvd for Ernani. Shortly after Il Trovatore his voice became raspy and ugly whenever he tried for a heavy tone.

Heavy singing is the hardest kind, the hardest to do, the hardest to find, the hardest to sustain over a long career. Lately we begin to hear lighter and lighter voices taking on these works. We also hear a growing taste for Baroque and modern opera which simply don’t have these heavy vocal requirements. The great stars are recording with a lighter tone—the record producers encourage this—and it inevitably holds over into live performances. The kind of singing we all grew up with may soon be gone forever.

Another blogging on the effects of recording is here.

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