The Well-Tempered Ear

Don’t listen to a recording before a live classical music concert — but after

October 26, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

Over the three decades I was a music critic for a daily newspaper in Madison, one of the questions I was asked most frequently was: Do you listen to a piece of music before you go to review it? listening2

The answer is: No.

And I don’t think that, barring special circumstances, others should either.

It is a great feeling to let the live performance take you, to ket it sweep you away.

(It just happened recently, when I heard the UW Pro Arte Quartet turn in a superlative and riveting performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 18, No. 6. It’s a work I know well in many performances from the Tokyo, the Guarneri, the Emerson and other famous string quartets. But how terrific it was to hear it again as if it were new. The American poet Ezra Pound wisely advised modernist poets  to “make it new” — and that’s a good motto for interpreters, no?)

If it is a piece you already know, going without preparation might well freshen it for you.

If it is a piece you don’t already know, the elements of surprise and pleasure might be all the greater.

Either way, not listening to it beforehand allows you to enter the live performance better.

Plus, listening beforehand often creates unfairly high expectations and unfair comparisons. Suddenly you will find yourself comparing how a living pianist interprets the work to historical readings by, say, Arthur Rubinstein or Vladimir Horowitz, Rudolf Serkin or Glenn Gould.

I followed the same practice when I was reviewing plays or operas. I would not read the text or listen to the music before going to see a live production. I want to take it on its own terms.

Of course after the hearing the live performance, turning to a recording is a different story.

Then I say go ahead and listen and compare. Then comparing becomes an act of connoisseurship that doesn’t mar either performance or detract from the live one.

What do you say?

Do you listen to recording of music (or read a play or see an opera) before you go to a live performance?

Or do you deliberately avoid that?

Tell us why you do what you do, what works best at serving the art and what you suggest others do.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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