Why the sound of classical music must change
Listening to the CD transfer of Louis Fremaux conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the ballet music from Massenet's Le Cid in Warner's indispensable Fremaux box reminded of just what a great achievment this disc is, both musically and technically. It was recorded by EMI in 1971 in the generous acoustic of the Great Hall, Birmingham University. Fremaux had been principal conductor of the CBSO for two years. His role as principal conductor was far different to that of today's peripatetic maestros, and in some seasons he conducted more than 70 concerts with the CBSO. At the time of the Massenet recording he had started the groundwork of transforming the provincial Birmingham band into the world-class ensemble it is today. This finessing continued throughout Fremaux's tenure in Birmingham despite his deteriorating relationship with the fractious orchestra. One of the beneficiaries of this transformation was the young Simon Rattle, who took over as principal conductor two years after Fremaux's abrupt and acrimonious departure in 1978.
Some of the credit for the enduring musical and sonic impact of this venerable recording must go to producer Brian Culverhouse and Stuart Eltham as balance engineer. In the opening Castillane of Le Cid the castanets can clearly be heard, but it is also very evident they are at the back of the orchestra. There is a sense of depth as well as breadth to the sound which is almost totally absent from today's recorded and orchestral sound. The BBC Radio 3 Proms relays are a prime example of today's one-dimensional sound where all the instruments appear in a line between the speakers, and all sense of depth on the soundstage is lost. Many reasons explain this apparently retrograde step. Time and cost pressures mean it is more efficient to use separate microphones for each section of the orchestra, so what you hear is the engineer's balance rather than the conductor's. Radio and TV simulcasts and live concert recordings mean microphones are placed out of sight close to the musicians and their instruments. And the predominance of headphone/earbud listening means stereo balances now have little relevance, as the binaural sound of headphones cannot reproduce a two-dimensional soundstage.
But the main reason why the startlingly lifelike balances from the Indian summer of EMI and Decca's classical recordings are an extinct species is that there is no longer any demand for them. Many readers will expect my post to deteriorate at this point into a let's wind the clock back rant. Sorry to disappoint those folks, but this path leads in the opposite direction. Classical music's new audience is conditioned to the 'in your face' sound' of head-fi and home cinema. If classical music wants a new audience, that audience should be given, within reason, what it wants.
The elusive new audience wants the 'up close and personal' sound it is conditioned to by listening to close balanced recordings and broadcasts. However received classical wisdom dictates that this new audience is denied that close sound in the concert hall, and in particular in the new generation of 'acoustically perfect' halls - acoustically perfect as defined by 19th century conventions. Which may well be why classical music is failing to gain traction with new audiences in the concert hall but is making an impact on streaming services such as Spotify.
I am not advocating turning the clock back. Instead I am advocating winding it forward by exploring how to give new audiences the sonic experience they want in the concert hall, instead of building new museums of sound. Digital technology underpins streaming services, the primary delivery platform for classical music. Yet digital sound shaping in concert halls is still considered heretical, despite successful precedents. Sound is impermanent: Bruno Walter's Mozart sounded very different to that of Frans Bruggen and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, but both are valid and both are sublime. Yet the very cultural commentators who chant the mantra that classical music must change refuse to accept that the sound must change if the art form is to remain relevant in the 21st century.
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