Why do you listen to your (really) old recordings?

November 14, 2007 at 06:51 AM · I find myself very rarely listening to my old recordings, just once in a while for mostly historical reasons. The old recordings of Huberman, Ysaye, Elman, Kreisler are fantastic from a historical perspective, and sometimes to hear some aspect of technique, or perhaps to gain insight into what the greats said or did.

But the recording quality is poor by today's standards, the playing generally not at quite as high a technical level. So perhaps someone can share what they find about a particular recording so interesting to them. I'm talking about a recording from the 78 era, not a 40s or 50s recording.

And if there's someone who actually regularly listens to their old 78 recordings over today's recordings I'd be really interested to hear why?

Replies (24)

November 14, 2007 at 01:26 PM · Hi, Terry: I love listening to the historic old recordings, too. For some reason, so many of them have been re-issued over the years on CDs. I don't know why; maybe it's because of copyright issues, or that the sound of the violin holds up pretty well on these old recordings (better, I think, than orchestral recordings, piano, or even voice).

Anyway, I think that listening to Ysaye and Joachim is first and foremost a link with the historical past in a manner unlike almost any other performing art. Just think - when you hear Joachim play, you are listening to the man who practically discovered Brahms.

Second, the sheer individuality of these people is astonishing and refreshing. I'm not so sure any of them would be acceptable by today's musicians and music critics and maybe even audiences. But it is great to hear all of these performances that - if less than perfect - have such individual voices and idosyncratic interpretations that you really hear the music in new and different ways. In today's world of what seems to be assembly-line teaching and assembly-line interpretations, listening to all of these historic performances is truly refreshing.

Cordially, Sandy

November 14, 2007 at 02:26 PM · there is so much personality and charm in kreisler's style that i continue to collect and listen to his recordings, i treasure every one

November 14, 2007 at 02:41 PM · I prefer the old recordings. The players generally had better techniques and they demonstrated a higher level of artistry and individuality. Listen to Ysaye play the finale of the Mendelssohn violin concerto and then tell me about his defective technique. Elman's Tchaikovsky defective? I don't think so.

By contrast, a few years ago there was a TV special on the Tchaikovsky competition. Apparently one of the required pieces that year was the Sarasate Carmen Fantasy. They did a segment on the TV show where they seemlessly cut from one player to the next. If you'd had your eyes closed you wouldn't have detected a change.

November 14, 2007 at 02:52 PM · I'm with both Scott and Sander here. I listen to my old recordings because I've become weary of anonymous correctness. These older recordings remind me of the visceral excitement that made me want to become a musician to begin with. And Corwin's example would be hysterical if it were not truly tragic. I'm at the point where I recommend abolishing the competitions--they destroy musicianship and replace it with a metronome. One could say the judges are to blame but look at who the judges are. Some are performers but the majority are good politicians who are also teachers.

November 14, 2007 at 03:06 PM · Sander: completely agree with you about the historical aspect of playing. But at the same time, once I'm done with the historical aspect, I'm opening up my 1940-1960 era recordings that can demonstrate the full dynamic range in addition to the interpretation.

Scott: Ever since I went to a master class by Sandor Vegh and he explained how the way Kreisler generated his sound was with an extremely short bow stroke close to the bridge I've always listened for that. But at the same time, I think I've concluded (certainly open to debate) that I like Josh Bell's longer strokes for Kreisler pieces. That said, Kreisler certainly has a tremendous charm that is magical.

Corwin: Yes, Ysaye's Mendelssohn is fantastic. Truly technically fantastic. I have the CD that has his entire recorded repertoire and I'm truly glad to own it. I bought it under your recommendation in your blog. But at the same time, sometimes the recording quality bugs me and I need to open up a 40's/50's era or modern recording. And some of the other stuff on that disk is not played to the same technical level as his Mendelssohn. This is not to overly pooh-pooh Ysaye - I'm sure they gathered up every single thing they could find, regardless of what the quality was, to put on the disk. And back then, unlike today, everything was done in one take.

Jay: I definitely see your point about the competitions.

November 14, 2007 at 04:29 PM · here is a little input from perlman in string mag on this subject:

,,,Perlman isn't the only person keeping his hands off his fiddle in class; often, he has the students put down their instruments and listen to recordings of great violinists of the past.

"In our summer program we listen to Heifetz and Elman and Milstein and Oistrakh and so on, because kids should know where they're coming from historically," he insists. "That's how your ear gets trained.

"When Heifetz was really young he sounded more like Kreisler and other people he was hearing in that era. Eventually he developed his own style, but he needed to know where he was coming from to develop his own way of playing."

Perlman is impressed with the technical abilities of his students, which he says are generally higher than was the norm when he was a kid. He's less satisfied with their tendency to care little about the likes of Heifetz and Milstein ("learning the proper way of playing musically"), instead throwing themselves into issues of period performance practice in the works of Bach and Mozart. "They do a lot of stuff in what they call the historical way," he says, "but they should call it the ‘hysterical' way, because it makes me hysterical when I hear it.",,,

on competition,,, there is healthy competition and then there is unhealthy competition depending on one's motive. many good if not great musicians have participated in competitions; whether they did well or not, they have managed to continue to grow as musicians thereafter. that alone is educational and worth the price imo. competition is not necessarily a limiting factor, but a stage in development. sooner or later you have to play in front of people who will be judgemental and seemingly unfair, not unlike the discussion on bullies. what you do and how you view it is totally up to you.

some fall on ice once in a while; a few fall on nice flat ground often. good thing is that we can always blame on the shoes.:):):)

ps: this thread somehow reminds me of the discussion of strads vs modern violins, and you have people nostalgically reminiscing how incomparably good the old days were... i think some modern day players are great in the proper context. ditto to the oldies!

November 14, 2007 at 04:32 PM · Perhaps you'll be able to overlook the audio defects as you grow older and the high frequency response becomes more and more irrelvant.

The sound quality bothered me at first but as I listened I could hear much more than sound quality. I think that Sarasate's playing of his own work is unrivalled. The only reason to listen to anyone else play them is higher fidelity sound.

The question now is would you rather hear a child play a Strad or Heifetz play a shop fiddle. I vote for Heifetz and the shop fiddle.

November 14, 2007 at 04:46 PM · I listen to music in order to be moved by it. When I hear 78 rpm recordings of early Mischa Elman, for example, the dots on the page are rendered in sound by Elman so as to get a visceral response, not to convey some verbal historical notion. The technical achievement required to play with great expressive content is far beyond a bean counting view of technique as the ability to hit the minimum number of wrong notes. When Mischa Elman plays a simple tune that any beginner could play, but plays it so as to make you cry or smile, there is a heck of alot of technique being demonstrated! The top technical level is, in my view, clearly lower today than it was in the era of Elman, Heifetz, Kreisler and Milstein.

November 14, 2007 at 07:39 PM · Amen Maestro Steiner and coming from you that means a lot.

November 14, 2007 at 09:38 PM · I don't have any really old recordings myself, but I'd love to hear some of the first string quartet recordings that were made. This is in part because of a book I was given 2-3 year's ago called Performing Music in the Age of Recording. I've since loaned it to a friend, but I remember it being an interesting read, it talks about how the recording process has changed the way music is played. A fascinating aspect for me was the way portamento was routinely used in string quartet performance whereas today it would be played cleanly; the portamento style is seen as simply old-fashioned nowadays. Of course it was all very carefully planned to underline the voice-leading. From memory, there were in this book some score extracts with the old interpretation marked up graphically where portamenti were used. This was a bit of a revelation for me as in my string writing from about 1995 I started to use pitch shifting, at first I thought it was influenced by guitar pitch-bending then it became more to do with voice-leading, but of course it had been done a long time ago...

November 14, 2007 at 10:14 PM · I listen to them for the same reason I would watch Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Nosferatu, etc.--compelling performances.

But, I don't think such performances are exclusive to the "oldies." At present I know the Szeryng/Milstein/Oistrakh crowd better than the super-oldies or the 40-and-under group playing today. There's a lot of good stuff to be found in each group, though I have a harder time telling the younger ones apart. It's the same with classical guitar--either homogeneity is taking over or I simply don't have the ear to discriminate between the players.

November 14, 2007 at 10:37 PM · Greetings,

it`s nice that Oliver brings up Elman here;)

By coincidence I have been keeping a CD of his playing encores on my drive to work for the last month and just can`t take it out.

Without belittling the achievements of all the greta violnist on the planet there is not one I have heard who produces such a gorgeous vibrant sound and plays so eloquently and passionately. To take some cliched dross like the Beethoven Menuetto or the Gossec thgummy (sort of Suzuki book2 stuff...) and turn them into the most miraculuous little gems is art of the highest order. Indeed, after listening to Elamn a few years back I actually started a new learning procedure with my less expressive studnets who were just going through the motions. I sit them down with a unadulterate dcopy of the Beethoven Menuetto and the Elman recording and ask them write down every single dynamic inflection, agogic accent, etc they can hear. After repeated listening they are invaribaly gobsmacked by the sheer detail of work Elman has put in (to what degre eit came naturally I have no idea ;)) and usually recognize my point that until you have thought about the role of every note you haven`t learnt a piece.

I think it comes back to a point that wa smade perhaps by Camilla Wicks (?) in a Strad interview a few years ago. She said that there has bene a definite shift in the way artists approahc music these days. They work on long musical lines and pay much less detail to the beauty of individual notes. That may be one reaosn we don`t have the Kreisler`s, Elman`s or Heifetz` anymore.

I would add that my personal and teahcing experience has been that stduents can radically change and advance their sound by listening to great violnists and or singers for an hour or so everyday. But this effect is often greater lsitenign to the best of the er, older geezers.

Joachim? Perhaps not. Maybe thats where they learnt to scratch ;)?



November 14, 2007 at 11:12 PM · ARnold Steinhardt talks about the same thing in the Art of Quartet Playing. He mentioned a pianist (Schnabel?)who would spend hours on a few measures in a sonata, experimenting with single notes and how they fit in with the phrase.

I think its a matter of patience. who has time to sit down and digest small parts when there are a million other things to do?

November 14, 2007 at 11:50 PM · I thought I would be shot down for putting down such a post, but also that I would learn something in the process.

Well, I was right on both counts!

Thanks everyone for all of your interesting points. :)

November 15, 2007 at 12:05 AM · Greetings,

nigel, ther eis another interesting aspect of chamber music, especially quartet playing which I think has some how become lost as a reuslt of somehtign loosely described as `musicla discipline,` for no reason I can fathom. That is the question of tempo change between the firts and second subjects. I find this especially pronounced in Beethoven where the second subject often screams for a shift down in gear and yet so many ensembles struggle to find a `mean@ tempo and the end result is `mean.` In the older recordings more license is often taken to match the tempo th the demand sof the music. The nature of the art then becomes one of making a coherent whole.

There are a whole slew of greta old quartet recoridngs available. I reocmmend the Capet Beethovn. Also the vegh quartet although I find them somewhat first violin orineted a swas also more typical in those days.



November 15, 2007 at 12:30 AM · You can buy antique wind-up Victrolas in working condtion all day for less than $200. It's really interesting to hear old 78s on them, and the table top models look great. The experience is different, like the playing itself. The sound is kind of thin and detailed. Also, you can get parts for them for basically free on ebay. My introduction was stumbling on a convention of people interested in them. One guy had one with a big horn attached and played some old brass band music for me. It was great.

November 15, 2007 at 02:30 AM · I have only really listened to Ysaye once . . . or twice

November 15, 2007 at 06:47 AM · Greetings,

I`m sure he has listened to you many times.



November 15, 2007 at 06:57 PM · I like listening to old recordings sometimes because one can hear the flaws (except maybe Heifitz)- they were not meticulously digitally edited. One also hears very strong opinions and loads of individual character in much of the old playing - they often give you much to disagree with as well as much to be in awe of.

I think that Ms Wicks is interested in the "big picture" as was Schnabel. Leon Fleischer (a Schnabel student) once reprimanded me in a piano masterclass for concentrating on 'the tail of the dog'... but this doesn't mean one does not need to pay attention to detail.

January 10, 2009 at 11:04 PM ·

I always listen to old recordings and I almost never listen to new ones. The only new recordings i listen to are Oliver Steiner's, Alexander Markov's and sometimes Itzakh Perlman's . The recordings of Heifetz, Kreisler, Elman, Seidel and Milstein are always booming in my house in the day and through the night. 

Just listen to Kreisler playing something like Beautiful Ohio. When a simple melody is played so beautifully it makes you want to cry. Kreisler's playing is so expressive and warm that it can't be expressed in words. None of the 'big shots' today have nearly accomplished what the violinists of yesterday did imo. I would give almost anything to go back 80 years in time and listen to those great violinists. Something today has been lost and I hope someday we find it.

Now I'm going to go listen to some Elman...

January 11, 2009 at 03:01 PM ·

I listen to old recordings for a number of reasons, not all mentioned so far! 1) Less recording in general seems to go on these days because of the expense of production & the limited financial returns. Think how many orchestras used to record regularly who almost don't nowadays. 2) I'm interested in variety, including what has happened to how masterworks are interpreted over time. 3) For pieces from the 1800's, especially mid-to latter 1800's, such players as the great soloists mentioned above were closer by many years/generations to the composers & their violinist-contemporaries. I hope that that means that to some very real extent, they have a more direct line to the times & intentions of the composers. 4) I play a lot of Cajun fiddle. Much of what is called Cajun today traces to late 1800's & early 1900's.Those gentlemen had mostly already passed away before I found this interesting and captivating fiddle style, so I listen a lot to the oldest available sources. Very little of Cajun music is transcribed; it was never written out in the old days. (It also has an obligatory improvisatory component, so transcriptions are that player in that moment. Old recordings also show how the player made his improvs as he went along.) If we struggle to know what someone may have sounded like in 1880, let's say, even w/the written parts and various descriptions of how that master played some piece, how much more difficult is folk music? Field recordings, with all their lumps &  bumps, have their own charm, too, once you get used to them. Sue   

January 12, 2009 at 04:09 AM ·

 When you are listening to the "old masters" you are listening to a culture, a history, a different philosophy of life. Kreisler bemoaned the fact that the modern age was so fast paced and people did not take enough time to appreciate all the beauty and variety around them. My first violin teacher told me that with his first teacher they would have a meal together, take a walk, or discuss literature and other things all in the course of the day that he had his lesson which was not something that had a precise ending time but  varied according to what his teacher felt he needed to learn for a given day.

Leon Fleisher, on his 80th birthday concert in Baltimore played a beautiful rendition of Bach's Sheep May Safely Graze. It had the detail from note to note together with the longer line. It was masterful. Would that we could live our lives and see the main themes of our existence but not miss the details too. Music is one way that we can achieve that and listening to great artists and learning from them is a wonderful road to travel. Since Camilla Wicks was mentioned I heartily recommend her recording of the Sibelius Concerto , a piece she played  in the presence of the composer who gave his enthusiastic approval.




January 14, 2009 at 10:12 PM ·

To me, the sound of the violin is the voice of the human heart. Between the "old" and the "new" is the entire panorama of human experience and expressions of the human heart through the genius of the great (and even not-so-well-known) violinists. Each had his or her own voice, and there are as many possibilities as there are violinists. And I've heard more than a few amateurs and students who also have something special and unique.

"Four slender wooden boards contain all there is of that instrument; yet what unlimited and sublime possibilities rest in this fragile frame. Four poor strings; yet what an endless row of artists, blessed with Nature's highest gift, have wrested from them all a human heart can feel of joy and pain, lust and consolation, enthusiasm and melancholy, horror and bliss!" - Franz Farga

January 14, 2009 at 10:46 PM ·

I think there are a number of reasons that I often prefer the older recordings, even if 'technically inferior"

1)Early 78 recordings were done using mechanical recording, it was a direct analog to analog recording, which despite the lack of 'high fidelity' in some ways is much closer to what music really sounds like. When you have something like even electrical....analog conversion, as was done later on, something is going to be changed in the process.

Likewise, the early electric recording were done with single microphones and what you hear is pretty much went on there. later on,  with mixing consoles and other techniques, a large part of what you hear is what the engineer turned it into (not a bad or good thing, just different). I also think that without the miracle of recording engineering, recording back then made the performer more honest about their performance, there were no tricks to bring an okay performance up to spec, they had to do it.


2)I think that those older generation of performers, in their prime, have things we lost today. They for the most part probably are not as technically perfect as modern performers are (I am talking on the whole, not individuals per se), I don't think the emphasis was on that as much back then, but I also think that there was more freedom back then to interpret the music and I think the emphasis they did have was on musicality and in playing the music, not simply playing the violin. I find a lot of nuance, a lot of emotional and other expression, in those pieces that I find less in todays recordings. Obviously, there were performers of that day (Heifetz and Millstein)  who played at very high levels of technical precision, while there are plenty of violinists today who both have the technical excellence expected and are not afraid to 'play the music' or whatever you want to call it. Listening to those old recordings, I always am thrilled when I hear modern performers who seem to catch the same thing these old timers did and combine it with their obviously incredible skills. (one such performer in my opinion? Christian Tetzlaf, just saw him do magic with Bach's solo works for violin)

If I had to sum it up, it would be that old recordings have their own particular charms, that to me represent something beautiful, and to leave that out would also be like not listening to people I adore today, it would be missing out on a whole world of musical expression.

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