When the best recording is too good...

December 14, 2010 at 06:31 AM ·

When a performer unleashes that  perfect recording of a well-known work, do they effectively "own" that work? I would love to play the Beethoven violin sonatas, but really now...just a brief listen to Kresler/Rupp ...or even better, Kreisler/Rachmaninoff, and I throw in the towel. It's not that they are too difficult to learn--it would be a welcome addition to my repertoire with a little effort. It's just that I will always hear Kreisler in my head, and my best efforts are laughable in comparison, trailing way behind in tone, interpretation and technique.  For the same reason, after hearing Heifetz recording of Saint Saens Sonata #1 (stereo with Brooks Smith LS2978), I would never attempt that work either.

There are exceptions such as Bach, which is open to so many good interpretations, there is always room for your individual statement, and contemporaries such as Bartok where the complexity of his violin compositions have many possibilities.

The virtuoso repertoire is generally open to all performers as so very few of us can play well enough to perform these live in a serious venue. Hey, if you can do match Milstein playing Paganini Caprice # 5 here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyN4L7Zsyos  all the more power to you.

A while back, I chose to specialize in  baroque and early music on a period instrument, in part because I felt the tone and playing style was a different animal completely from a modern violin. This way, I could perform music as late as the Classical era without trying to compete with the world's greatest recordings-- an impossible task.

Replies (24)

December 14, 2010 at 12:49 PM ·

When I was studying for my grade 8 cello, which included two movements from the Bach cello suites, my teacher advised me not to listen to the Casals recordings (which were the only ones I had at the time – and still have, as it happens) until after the examination, because there would be a tendency for my interpretation to sound too much like Casals', and the examiner, certainly at that level, would like to hear some individuality in the examinee's playing.

There's almost a case for saying that, as with a live performance which you can hear only once and then it's gone because it can never be exactly repeated, then one should only listen to a recording once and once only.

There is also the point about the "perfect" recording - how much of it is due to multiple takes and post-cording dubbing and editing, in which case it is a "performance" you're unlikely to hear live in the concert hall.  

December 14, 2010 at 01:05 PM ·

I'm not sure what a 'perfect recording' is.  I mean I have heard many versions of Bach Partitas that I think each is perfect when I listen to it - and then I like the next one just as much with its own expression.

I wonder if this is a difference in brain processing?  As said, I have a rather poor litteral memory - so when I hear the piece I enjoy it but am left with the lingering aura of it, not the actual music running through my mind.  If you do the latter then I could see how a particularly fantastic rendition would become something you could not measure up to.  Perhaps the best approach is to think instead of how you might play the piece with a different emphasis - just do something like change the tempo a bit or enhance a mood - pathos, love whatever and see if you can make it yours?

December 14, 2010 at 01:48 PM ·

At the time of Kreisler, they could not cheat.. A take contained an entire piece, or section of a sonata or concerto. If not satisfied, they had to record all over again.  That is one reason why the oldies are so exciting... They are mostly live performances.

For more than 40 years, RCA promoted Heifetz recordings ( he was not performing at the time and this started in 1965) with an idiom saying  "Matchless performances" and many wrote or said that everything he did was definitive... This was my generation... And this was false and misdirected a complete generation of violinists or performers.

I do not say that Heifetz was not phenomenal...it is just the idea of being macthless that was not right, and I understood how dangerous and false this publicity concept was the first time I heard, Oistrach, later Kogan and also Arthur Grumiaux, Milstein , Szeryng in Bach, all of these fellows live in the concert Halls... And during the 80,s and still today, Anne-Sophie Mutter is as much a great virtuoso in the grand repertoire as Heifetz or any great violinist of the past. Hahn the same , and Ehnes also...Just buy the latest CD of Ehnes and his Mendelssohn Concerto : it is different, but as good,if not better than any of the greatest recordings  of the past... It was recorded live... and Mr. Ehnes is reknowed among his collegues to be just on the spot right at the first take... He even does better, live, in the concert hall...

Kreisler's -Rupp complete violin sonatas, Grumiaux-Haskil, Kremer-Argerich or Mutter-Orkis are all different and each of them higly  valuable...

Nothing is definitive or perfect... and since we understood the concept, today, there are still Kreisler's and Heifetz's out there, and many of these are female violinists, not only male, ( Hahn, Fisher, Mutter), and that is just fantastic. New perspectives and ideas ahead...

Macthless is a wrong concept and it kills music making...

December 14, 2010 at 02:41 PM ·

I think it's not so much whether a performance is "perfect" or "definitive" or "matchless" or any other superlative that places it on the peak of some kind of Olympian mountain of musical performance.

To me (and this is just my opinion, of course) it's that I simply can't imagine it being played any other way.

And there are some such performances that are clearly not "perfect' or with the best tone or the most beautiful vibrato. But they capture that artist's unique violinistic "voice" expressing clearly and completely his or her vision of the composer's intent.

I can think of many such performance that to me are definitive but that to you are probably something you'd not consider in an appropriate style or with the right technique or whatever.

Examples include Zino Francescatti's Beethoven Violin Concerto performance (with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, recorded in 1950 in one take) and Yehudi Menuhin's performance of Paganini's 2nd Violin Concerto (with Fistoulari and the Philharmonia Orchestra).

And, by the way, Heifetz was matchless. Whether his uniqueness is something you consider appropriate or authentic or warm or mechanical or whatever, that's a different matter. But he sure was matchless.

December 14, 2010 at 02:44 PM ·

I would also say that too perfect can be boring...  (one must not neglect the musical aspect for the technical perfection)

How many violinist complain that, for examples, Mozart concertos are so perfect nowadays, that they can even sound "sterile" almost all pp (where is that energy and guts???) are performers so afraid to not follow the pre-establish standard for peice x?

What I like so much about the oldies and a few modern as well is their individuality!  (Perlman is Perlman and no one can play like him, the same for Oistrakh, Haendel, Heifetzh, Kreisler, Vengerov, Chang etc)



December 14, 2010 at 02:52 PM ·

As for comparing with the great masters, (I could never anyway as an amateur...), I think it's bad...

One should perhaps listen to the great masters (many of them and note the things one likes about each one of their interpretations).  After one should sing his own version and listen to his own violin's voice.  Each one of us has an inner voice (perception of violin sound) and each violin has also his voice.  Thus one should have a violin that matches their mental "voice". 

One should perhaps think "what does that violin and me have to offer" instead of how can I play as well as x (most likely impossible).  Possible for two-three notes but not for the whole thing!!! 


December 14, 2010 at 04:32 PM ·

"cannot imagine being played any other way"... Do you really believe this Sandy my dear friend??? This in my view is against all my very modest principles and convictions... I often refer here to Martha Argerich... for instance, I have about 12 different versions of her playing the Shumann Concerto or even other repertoire and it is never the same and always rethought again... That conception is anti-Heifetz who always played with so much accuracy in an almost identical way each time... Evidence is provided by rare takes of him for instance playing the same excerpt of the same piece four times in a row. These were stereo test he made during the early 1930's for R.C.A.  The complete recordings on R.C.A. of Kreisler provided us with many takes of the same piece played the same day by Kreisler: He was in the Argerich league and his interpretations differ a great deal from one to another take... This is obvious also with Beethoven sonanta 8 with Rachmaninov. They choosed to commercialized at the time take two... Recently, they issued for the first time, take one and it sounds totally different and even better.

I would rather say that Heifetz was  matchless with himself, from one recording to another of his, from one performance to another, so predictable he was and constant. It is ok, I have no problem with this. But I much prefer spontaneity and inspiration of the moment. I do not say that Heifetz was not an inspired artist... But he seldom improvised... Argerich always advised strongly her students to avoid imitation of their own playing...being constant and repetitive is very dangerous in the long run... This is exactly what Kreisler mentionned in a famous interview of his...

There are other ways, otherwise creativity would be a static concept, an immuable one. This is what happens when one listens too much recordings and seldom attends concerts...

Sandy: it was so hard to get rid of all these matchless and definitive interpretations by Heifetz most of my teachers imposed on me and so many others... I remember a famous concert master teaching me in a masterclass, destroying all the playing and spontaneity of his students one after another and having only good words for Heifetz, who for him, was the only and best example he would refer as a model. He systematically destroyed all the reputation of great artists such as Misltein, Grumiaux or Oistrach, asserting that they were weak compared to Heifetz... Oistrach was feminine in his view, Milstein and Grumiaux could not project in the hall he said.. He was doing this in front of the class ,in public,  all the time... Other teachers  just kept me practicing shifts and slides "à la Heifetz"  or imposed the famous repetitive leitmotive of the same phrase to be played the same way over and over again, ad nauseam...Ouf!!! all of this just exhausted me so much... I had to rethink every thing after and it took many years before I could get away from this... After all these years of brain washing, I had to reconsider everything, all my views about violin playing... Lets put it this way: Heifetz could not macth Oistrach, and Oistrach could not match Heifetz either... and so on, and so on. This in my humble point of view is more human and creative... It offers more options...

I still enjoy listening to Heifetz today... but I do see things with a drastic different perspective now... And I am really happy to have escaped the matchless or definitive concept...



December 14, 2010 at 05:17 PM ·

Hi, Marc:

My goodness, what an impassioned (and elegant) response to my modest little comments. I'm not sure I made myself clear. I heard David Oistrakh, live, play the Beethoven Concerto on 3 different occasions. Each one was identifiably Oistrakh, of course, and yet each one was different and indeed spontaneous. I walked out of there each time saying to myself, "How can anyone play this any better than that?"

That Heifetz played a piece the same exact way over the years is not, to me, what made him matchless. What made him matchless was his unique "voice" that could be mistaken for no one else. That doesn't mean that I think that other violinists are somehow below or inferior to him - quite the contrary. It's just that he was incomparable. And so was Oistrakh, and Kreisler, and Menuhin, and....

With all of the "top 10" lists that we've had on this website, I believe that you can't put artists on some sort of list. I've always liked the quote by Bela Bartok when he was referring to competitions: "Competition is for horses, not for artists." Likewise, I think that top 10 lists aren't for artists either.

But I still think that Heifetz was matchless, and I cannot imagine (and have never heard) the kind of performance of, say, the Elgar Concerto that Heifetz put on record. It is unforgettable, and warm, and complete, and anything but mechanical, in spite of the fact that he probably played it exactly the same way for decades. And WHILE I'M LISTENING TO IT, I can't imagine it being played any other way. That, I think is the phenomenological gestalt of the musical experience. It is in the moment, and it carries you along and tells a story.

And, yes, I certainly agree that this does not mean that everyone else is second rate, because I feel exactly the same way listening to the Menuhin/Elgar performance and the Hillary Hahn performance and....

Oh, well. Have a great day and a great holiday. It is really an honor for me to be able to converse with (and occasionally cross swords with) the talented and insightful and accomplished people on this website, and you are certainly one of them.


December 14, 2010 at 05:25 PM ·

No, not anymore than a painter can own the sky.

December 14, 2010 at 05:27 PM ·

Sandy...your replies are always matchless and I love our innocent and gentle swords. I do respect you a lot and really love it when you sneak in... In fact, I know you will and this what it makes it so interesting...


 Thanks for your Christmas wishes and I return the same... This is very touching and I appreciate it a lot... I am going to Boston  to celebrate with friends and family... For the longest time I have'nt seen them, so this will be a very,  very special and loving reunion...

December 14, 2010 at 06:51 PM ·

In regards to whether the great recordings are disincentives to learn the great repertoire... Speaking for myself, absolutely not. I've found that learning the repertoire actually enhances my enjoyment of recordings. It forces you to focus on elements that you would have taken for granted had you never actually played the piece yourself.

As I've said before on this website, the one recording that I love the best is a live performance I have of Ehnes in the Tchaikovsky concerto. I love absolutely everything about it. Every other interpretation of the concerto falls short for me. (Not saying I'm proud of that fact, because I actually would prefer to enjoy a wide range of interpretations; but I can't deny the truth!) Will I ever be able to play the Tchaikovsky the way Ehnes plays it in this recording? Um...no. Heck, I honestly don't think Ehnes *himself* could play the Tchaikovsky again the way he did in that recording. It was just one of those nights when absolutely everything came together. So I'm not entertaining any delusions that I'll ever be able to play it at such an extraordinarily high level. But at the same time, every time I listen to the tape, it inspires me. I become even more motivated to work to be able to even just hack through the Tchaikovsky, so I can appreciate the artistry and technical achievement on this beloved recording even more (if such a thing is possible).

Not to mention, especially if you're an amateur violinist, ninety-nine percent (or more) of your audience will not have this preconceived Kreisler or Heifetz or Bell or Hahn or Ehnes ideal in their heads. And it's rather unfair to rob them of great music, however imperfectly played, just because you personally feel you're falling short of a standard set by someone (in the case of Kreisler) else seventy-five years ago. I'm all for loving great recordings, but I think it's a huge mistake to block yourself off from repertoire just because you're so attached to one particular performance.

December 14, 2010 at 07:56 PM ·

Heard Ehnes 3 times playing the Sibelius over a period of 5 years, and each performance was unique and different... Same for his Mendelssohn and many other pieces of the repertoire. James has recorded live last week all the Tschaïkovski works for violin and orchestra with Valdimir Ashkenasy... Just can't wait to hear it...

December 14, 2010 at 08:34 PM ·

I´ve never come across a perfect recording, some incredibly beautiful one´s but never perfect :) Music can be interpreted in so many and varied ways that there´s no "perfect" way to perform things. Every recording deserves a chance.

To me, just because some violinist does a stuning recording of a piece doesn´t mean that other violinists can´t tackle that piece. I´m playing Canzonetta by Tchaikovsky right now and I know well I´ll never be able to match up to those incredible performances that exists but that doesn´t mean I can´t play the piece and learn it. Everyone is entitled to play a piece of music :)

December 14, 2010 at 10:04 PM ·

Thanks to all for the response to my query-- I referred to Kreisler/Beethoven sonatas in the original post, as they are amongst the finest of the violin sonatas ever written-- but perhaps limited to to the musical liberties a performer can bestow upon them. Play the Kreutzer sonata too fast or too slow, and it will not work. Accentuate where there cannot be accents, and the phrase suffers. They are in many ways delicate compositions. It is this type of music that perhaps can have-- or rather aspire towards perfection in performance. Unlike the Bach partitas and sonatas, where there can be endless wonderful interpretations all dramatically different from each other-- the Beethoven sonatas can arguably be performed correctly or not. When the tone, phrasing and technique all come together in such a way as to leave the listener with a profound meaning, a "perfect" performance has been obtained. Every note need not be perfectly in tune, nor perfectly timed, but the meaning must be conveyed and the audience moved by the combined attributes. We find another Beethoven sonata cycle for piano as played by Schnabel-- and its the same thing. "Perfectly profound", even though it may be technically lacking. So many mistakes never sounded so good.

Heifetz may be the greatest violinist according to many, but I doubt his recordings of the Beethoven sonatas would leave the listener with profound meaning. Flawless technique, wide dynamic range, precise vibrato and greatly entertaining, yes, but I believe most musicphiles would probably place Kreisler's Beethoven above that of Heifetz's where it counts. It is Kreisler's Beethoven interpretation alone that inspires me to acknowledge that my own efforts are best set aside for these works.

December 14, 2010 at 10:10 PM ·

Emily, 100% agree it's really true!!!  If, as an amateur, you stop to play because you find you play badly compared with the masters, you'll rob your mostly  "non-musician" audience of nice music (considering that they perhaps can't realize as much the gap between us and the greats than we do... They can hear the biggest mistakes but not the million of tiny ones ; ) 


December 14, 2010 at 10:45 PM ·

Evan: I agree with you with Kreisler and his interpretation of the Beethoven sonatas... It is so imaginative and played with a bow tecnique that I consider much superior to Heifetz... Kreisler was a great master and he used the parlando like no any other violinist could... He was trained with the greatest singers of his time and used a great deal of vocal phrasing in his playing...

Many of the greatest violinists who were contemporaries of both Kreisler and Heifetz, like Milstein, Oistrach, Gingold, Szigeti, Francescatti , Oscar Shumski all testified about the live performances of the greatest works as played by Kreisler. These violinists all considered Kreisler to be a model of inspiration... Unfortunately, very few of the great repertoire was put on wax by Kreisler who played about 40 concertos and all the major works for solo violin or violin and piano... In the 30's and because of the wars, this was simply not possible and Kreisler was at the end of his career during the 1930's. Heifetz was on the rise and benefited of better recording technique... The machtless Heifetz is an idiom that came much later during the 60's... At the time, RCA started to reedit all Heifetz recordings... Others were forgotten... It took quite a while to reedit all Kreislers recording, except for one or two once in a while... I have discovered a totally different artist when I had the chance to buy the complete R.C.A. recordings, reissued about 8 years ago. Listening to Kreisler prior to 1926 and from as early as 1901 was a revelation to me... In 1914-15 he displayed a formidable technique...

December 15, 2010 at 03:00 AM ·

 If the best recordings are behind us, we might just give up playing now :)

December 15, 2010 at 10:37 AM ·

Marc, what do you think of Borodin quartet + Richter and the Brahms A major piano quartet? 


I think, its an absolutely outstanding recording. (Am I the only person on the planet being so inlove with this piano quartet?)

December 15, 2010 at 01:40 PM ·

Lena: I love Richter but I have not listened to this particular quartet for a long time. I like Argerich in the G minor... And I am a fanatic of the Brahms horn trio... I felt in love with all the music of Brahms a long time ago....

I will go for your suggestion and listen to it... I must have the original recording somewhere, if not with me, at my fathers house for sure...

December 15, 2010 at 09:01 PM ·

@Marc: try the Youtube link I posted!

Guarneri quartet with Rubinstein have an amazing interpretation of both G minor and C minor piano quartets...very recommended :)

December 16, 2010 at 08:39 AM ·

I have a hard time listening to Kol Nidrei by anyone but Han Na Chang, it's such an amazing and spiritual rendition; Anne Sofie von Otter sets the bar for me in Mahler 2 with her ability to decrescendo to pp while leaping up an octave; and I love Kyung-Wha Chung's 1st Brahms Sonata (watch on Youtube, about 9 1/2 minutes in she gets this heartrendingly breathy tone, it's from another world! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=igwBXXtI028 ).  Subtle details that touch just the right spot, emotionally.  They are so close to my own ideal interpretation and there is so very little I would change, I would be an imitator.  That doesn't mean I won't perform such pieces; I'd just rather pursue music that lets me be a first-rate version of myself rather than a second-rate version of someone else.  To find what has not been said and say it; as Emerson wrote, to go where there is no path and leave one.

The interesting thing about favorite recordings from the past is when you haven't listened to them in a while, it can be a shock to realize they don't sound the way you remember.  But that seems to happen to me less often now.

December 18, 2010 at 06:38 PM ·

  The world would be a sad, silent place indeed if musicians refused to learn and perform pieces simply because, in their opinion, a "better" interpretation was already out there.

I do believe that EVERY musician, from the weekend fiddler to the highly trained concert pianist, has a gift to be shared with the world, and therefore anything they play with their heart's passion is a meaningful and much needed contribution to music.

There is more to music-making than technical 'perfection' and publicity for any number of reasons. We are all unique souls with a variety of talents...can you imagine if everyone were to sound like Heifetz, or Casals? The allure and excitement of performing and listening would quickly become stagnant!  Enjoy your favourite artists, but realise that great music making (and all the definitions of such) will never end, and certainly did not come to a grinding halt at the end of your most treasured recording. There is a difference from outright imitation...and simply letting whatever it is in your soul sing aloud through the piece, no matter how closely it should resemble a previous performance from perhaps long ago...or how "inferior" you may judge it to be))

December 18, 2010 at 06:46 PM ·

Another way to think of it is, we mortals are the ones who allow the immortals to shine. If we weren't so bad, people wouldn't realize how amazing the really great players are!

*meant to be tongue in cheek - a little*

December 18, 2010 at 09:37 PM ·

Emily, in these same lines, when you own a good violin and are a "normal" amateur player, you can tell to yourself that you develop the tone (even if you don't play that well as long as you play in tune and solidely), raise and  take care of a good violin for maybe and hopfully a better player than you when you'll pass out...

How fun to know that you contribute to raising up a good violin for (I presume) someone else when you know that you'll never be the good "pilot" that instrument could handle yourself!  

Said with the tongue in the cheek too ; ) 



I sometimes feel like "just" a violin groomer and guardian...  But in racing, they say that the groomer is closer to the horse and knows more things on his global behaviour than the jockey (haha) 

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