Last month, a Wall Street Journal book review by James F. Penrose focused on After the Golden Age, a 304-page book by Kenneth Hamilton. Hamilton’s thesis is that, especially in the realm of classical piano music, interpretive license has been supplanted by an emphasis on absolute fidelity to the written note.
In the musical realm, vocal critics such as Gramophone’s John Steane and yours truly have long lamented the dearth of embellishment, rubato, and other expressive devices that characterized the great singing of an earlier era. One need only to compare 78s of French song by Maggie Teyte, who coached with Debussy, or those of the songs of Richard Strauss by Elisabeth Schumann, whom the composer lovingly accompanied, to hear how unimaginative much of today’s singing has become.
Listen to Schumann’s incomparable performance of Strauss’ “Traum durch die Dämmerung” (Dreams at Twilight) while reading the score. Yes, she freely plays with tempi, arriving at a sunny climax, holding it far longer than written, then stretching relationships as she descends the scale as though her voice were a feather floating on a gentle breeze. But after hearing how perfectly she conveys Strauss’ meaning, would you want it any other way?
Today’s voices, in general, are more homogenized and possess more surface beauty than of yore. Interpretations, on the other hand, are often far more commonplace, lacking the idiosyncratic personal stamp and heartfelt commitment of singers of older generations. Hence we have such disappointments as a recent Berkeley recital by Rolando Villazón, one of the finest operatic tenors of our age, in which he performed Schumann’s Dichterliebe with total sincerity and great beauty of tone, yet with a textual fidelity that failed to move most of the audience.
There are of course analogies to the audio realm. Equipment that measures perfectly can leave some listeners cold.
On forums and in letters to the editor, we have folks who insist that test results are everything, and that achieving optimal test results will automatically yield the best sound. On the other end of the spectrum, we have those who claim that all that matters is what they hear, test results be damned. Somewhere between those two diametrically opposed camps reside people like myself who honor test results, expect some correlation between test results and what they hear, but ultimately find that listening, and only listening, can serve as the ultimate arbiter in realms of personal taste.
Hence, even if we cannot fully explain how something works – the human body, human life, and the origins of the Universe could serve as ultimate examples – we can still appreciate what it does, and take advantage of its existence if we so choose.
Music is ultimately a mystery. As much as we may analyze the mathematics of Messiaen and Bach, or the vibrational relationships in a twelve-tone row, we cannot explain why one performance of Messiaen or Bach, or the differences between the instruments upon which it is played, affect us more than others. It is simply a case of emotional impact. Depending upon the listener, some performances convey more emotional truth than others. The ultimate arbiter in music is the human heart, not a series of graphs and charts.
For those who care about music, the true arbiter of the worth of any piece of equipment – be it amplifier or ridiculously expensive tweak – is how it makes you feel as you play your favorite music. The same holds true for those who mainly watch DVDs on home theater set-ups. If you value, above all, a system that delivers the ultimate wallop in crash scenes, your chosen subwoofer will be the one that delivers the clearest, strongest, most direct punch. Ideally, that same subwoofer will also boom true for jazz and classical lovers, who value pitch, clarity, and impact from double bass.
The issue, then, extends beyond “What Music Has Lost” to what sound systems have lost. Yes, the equipment of an earlier era, especially tube equipment, was often less accurate and far more colored than the best equipment nowadays. But, for many listeners, it conveyed a wealth of emotion untouched by the rows of mass-market equipment that line home electronics stores.
The bottom line: yes, absolutely pay attention to charts, graphs, and test results. Many reviews on this website contain some of the most detailed technical evaluations of any available either in print or on the web. But, once you see the test results, listen.
Yes, we can be deceived in listening as much as we can be deceived in relationships. But unless you are convinced that the only way to build a long-lasting relationship is to find someone with the perfect stats, it would be great to hang out for awhile – long enough to discover how the relationship makes you feel. The same is true of equipment. What sounds great for a 15-minute listen may prove fatiguing after several hours. Only by taking sufficient time to listen and evaluate in the comfort of your own home can you begin to determine what is right for you. Otherwise, you may end up with a system so devoid of soul that you too lament about what music has lost.