April 4, 2011
We all know how sitcoms laughs are being applied masterfully to serve the action and give relief to dialogues. In classical music there is a fine line between a true live album with minor edits and some engineered product where live and rehearsal performances are mixed to a degree of sophistication that may confine to deception.
Indeed Deutsche Grammophon knows it so well that they cleverly wrote legally bulletproof information in the credits: "Recordings: Ferrara, Teatro communale di Ferrara, 4/2010". It is quite vague considering this whole affair was a special, one event concert... Translation: despite all our subliminal efforts showing the soloist and conductor in concert attire, having the soloist talk about her live experience and bringing applause at the end to induce listeners and owners of this product into believing it was all live, nowhere is it written that this CD is in fact a "live" recording of the April 11, 2010 Ferrara performance. Perhaps DG should take inspiration from the food industry and label it "may contain some live extracts"...
Even UK critic Norman Lebrecht wrote "The recording was taken live a year ago in Ferrara, Italy, with sound as good as it gets from Sid McLauchlan and Stephan Flock."
And it'll get better! Even in Wang's immaculate recording, a mesmerized audience breathing ever so quietly would never be quiet enough that arrays of microphones could not pick it up, especially in the Adagio. Yet this is the technological miracle we were treated to, a mat sound over perfect silence pervasive during the first two movements but that evaporated in the Concerto's third movement. The piano became finally audible, warmer (with a hot finish by analogy with wine tasting) while the change in the sound bloom was unmistakable on a professional system. It exposed the trick. Even the Rhapsody was not immune to long substitutions and even blanks between variations and one can point out multiple switches between reverberant and less reverberant sections in it. I would happily compare my report card with DG's editing logs! I suggest picking these up as a great game to try at home, between friends!
Ah, friends... Quoting Lebrecht: "Anyone who doubted that Yuja Wang is the real deal will be bowled over by this release." Bowled over yes, but not exactly the way he envisaged it...
But he is not alone in believing the whole thing was live. In their CD reviews tab, DG's website highlights some strategic quotes from other esteemed critics, strategic only because none of them mention their authors' unadulterated belief about a live recording!
Colin Anderson's Classicalsource.com review dated 23. March 2011 begins with the statement "Recorded live, both these performances shed fresh light on two of Rachmaninov's best-known pieces", gone, my son, gone!
But the palm should be awarded to Janos Gereben who, his bio tells us, "writes about music, theater, and film for the San Francisco Examiner and other publications. Previously, he served as arts editor of the Post Newspaper Group, and music editor of The Seattle Times and San José Mercury News."
This great one doesn't take gloves and emphatically titles his San Francisco Classical Voice March 22, 2011 prostration: "Yuja: The Greatest Russian of Them All?" How about that?
Perceptive ear, he insists on "Still, it is in the 1901 Second Piano Concerto, in C minor, Op. 18, that the intensity is even more palpable. The live recording, made in Ferrara's Teatro Communale, has a sound of immediacy, free of studio overengineering. Yuja's exceptional strength is put to good use for the introductory tolling of the bells that builds tension heralding the appearance of the main theme. Her arpeggios are full and strong. Abbado and the orchestra are leaders, followers -- partners in music-making of the highest order."
Here is what listening to crappy mp3 format leads to... Yet, for a record label and its engineers, such praise should warm their hearts and deserve an inclusion in the official reviews. In vain: only the tacky latest portion of the quote made it!
Obviously the "live" attribute is on the menu of the apologists but not on the label's own, or only as innuendo. This triumph of "overengineering" is to be celebrated discreetly.
So let's help these critics and break the sad truth to potential buyers: here is the result based on the discernable alternating sound attributes in the Abbado/Wang DG release showing what I believe represent the respective "live" performance time versus rehearsal/studio time.
During the listening process, the timing of edits presents an uncertainty of few seconds since one has to adjust to the sound bloom change before declaring a switch with confidence. Correlatively, other minor edits are likely to be missed. Some however are unmistakable such as the 8:25 transition from studio to live in the Moderato of the Concerto where a mat, dry, clean sound and subdued piano with a veiled upper register changes to a reverberant hall where the piano is better delineated, its upper notes becoming "hot" and the orchestra sounds more open, a character shared by the third movement and applauses following the Concerto.
First Movement, Moderato: 41% live, 59% studio
Second Movement, Adagio: 26% live, 74% studio
Third Movement, Allegro: 89% live, 11% studio
Thus overall, 52% live versus 48% studio
Rhapsody on a Paganini Theme: 50% live, 50% studio
In essence, the CD comprises as much live performance than studio rehearsal time, a distribution that hardly could qualify as cosmetic editing.
Hence it is logical and wise for DG - unlike others- to refrain claiming this as a "live" recording of the April 2010 Ferrara concert. Yet their marketing plays on the ambiguity and many fell for it. Rather than lamenting and hoping it will cure itself, here is a suggestion: fat level disclosing is mandatory by law on food labels, how come the amount of patch editing in classical music so called live recordings could not be known to a buyer?
Simply put: as of now, it is buyer beware!
Finally one can smile at these supposed arbitrers of musical taste who all pinch their noses when discussing Rachmaninov's music, just to find it fully acceptable when the right marketing and product command it! Once again, Gereben culminates in bad taste, as if a pianist's poor reading should reflect on the composer: "For the Adagio and Allegro, so often overdone (and thus creating some less-than-enthusiastic Rachmaninov fans), there is balance here and the right sound between excess and holding back too much. The Italian maestro and the Chinese-American pianist get the Russian essence of the composer for a big, resounding "DA!""
So what about the music?
In the notes Wang is quoted saying "it was a challenge to bring out the harmonies..." Indeed she is nowhere to be heard, overpowered or underperforming like in the Adagio of the Concerto. As to what is the meaning of all this music? Let's defer to the soloist to enlighten us: in her promo video filmed last November on the Hamburg sand, Yuja giggles about the Concerto No. 2, "in the 2nd movement there is lots of dialogue between the piano and the woodwinds" and the strings provide "a good carpet" for the soloist, "heart wrenching" no doubt, tee-hee!
P.S.: And now there is the other kind of reviewer, who obviously must have read the amazon.com comment and serious questions about the amount of LIVE in this recording, but prefers to justify the tricks while putting his own disclaimer:
William Hedley in a review dated April 11, 2011 for MusicWeb International writes: "A word of warning, though. The performance of the concerto is live, and that of the Rhapsody may also be, but the only mention of this is in the booklet essay, with no sign at all on the outside. The audience is absolutely silent during the music, but then there's the phantom bravo-shouter: he's enough of a pest at concerts, and not everyone wants to invite him home."
Mr. Hedley calls this Rachmaninov Concerto "refreshing"... What would have been refreshing is a thorough investigation and a call for full disclosure of editing from any label the moment applauses are featured in the disc rather than a half hearted disclaimer!
P.S. 2: July 12, 2011. Another critic, Australian Anthony Clarke from Limelight Magazine wades cautiously in after the usual falling over backward:
"These special readings seem to come from live performances - the Concerto gives this away with a snatch of applause at the end, but there is no other indication of this. The sound quality is as detailed as the finest studio recording; both the piano and orchestra are caught in awesome fidelity."
Walking on eggs Mr. Clarke? Just like all these critics who now know that something's fishy... "Seem" is the right word and indeed it can sometimes sound as a studio recording for a darn good reason... Musical incompetence -none of these critics know the score- doubled with indiscriminating hearing -none could figure out the audible splices- show how musical criticism has reached its lowest point yet: CD peddlers would be a better description of what these people offer. Shame on them!
P.S. 3: This "thing" was nominated for the Grammy Awards 2012... but wisely, the profession avoided an embarrassing moment by not rewarding trickery!