A recent article in the New York Times revealed something startling about the world of classical music. Professional musicians, it seems, are becoming increasingly hooked on beta-blockers such as Inderal (a medication usually taken by people with high blood pressure) to eliminate the jitters before a concert. Performance-enhancing drugs are usually associated with the world of sports—the dark and sweaty recesses of a locker room—not with the rarefied, occasionally stuffy environs of Carnegie Hall or the Met. There’s a difference, of course, between steroids, which can kill a person, and beta-blockers, which are generally free of side effects when taken in small doses. But the trouble with beta-blockers is that they don’t just relieve stage fright, allowing a violinist or pianist to walk onto a floodlit stage and face with confidence an audience enveloped in darkness. If the Times is correct, these medications actually lead to more perfect technical performances, to more unnatural and inauthentic ones.
When I used to play the violin, as a boy and throughout college, I had several opportunities to appear as a soloist, a few times playing a concerto with an orchestra, but mostly in recitals, performing a piece or two with piano accompaniment. I would experience stage fright in varying degrees. Sometimes, playing in front of an audience felt no different from practicing in my bedroom. At other times, however, anxiety introduced problems that never arose in rehearsals. My vibrato (the oscillation of a violinist’s left hand to color a note) would speed up, despite my best attempts to control it, and become more wildly intense, thus affecting the intonation for the worse. My right hand would lose its steadiness as well, and I would have trouble drawing the bow across the strings in a smooth, sustained way. And there would be the inevitable missed notes—a slide from one note to the next, practiced over and over again to my satisfaction at home, that suddenly, unaccountably went wrong.
But a little nervousness and the energy produced by adrenaline coursing through the bloodstream can also lead to excitement in a performance, to even the most wondrous moments of revelation. A nervous young conductor, for example, who begins a piece at a tempo faster than the one agreed upon in rehearsal, might catch his orchestra off guard for a second, but the musicians will creep toward the edges of their seats because of it, and their heightened state of concentration might lead to a more kinetic, vibrant performance than they otherwise would have given. Because of adrenaline, many musicians find themselves taking unexpected risks during a concert, attacking particularly virtuosic passages with gymnastic verve, in a way that they might not in the studio, when recording for posterity, when it would be better, really, just to play it safe. It’s no surprise that studio recordings rarely match the thrill and intensity of a live performance.
That’s why, I suspect, musicians are medicating on beta-blockers at such a shocking rate: they must aspire to the perfection of their recordings, in which any imperfections in a musician’s playing are edited out, cleaned up. Listen to almost any classical CD today, and you will hear flawlessness. This phenomenon isn’t recent, of course; all that splicing and patching has been going on for quite a while. But as technology has advanced, a standard of technical brilliance, however artificial, has been set by the recording industry. Nobody today would release a new record with a patch of wrong notes buried in the middle of it. There’s no going back to the golden days (the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s) when a musician’s flaws—the occasional intonation lapse or imprecise articulation—were preserved on vinyl, along with their triumphs and insights. That, to me, is a pity.
I recently bought three recordings of Felix Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, one of the touchstones of the repertoire, by three of the best young violinists now performing: Gil Shaham, Hilary Hahn, and Joshua Bell. Each record is splendid in its own way. I marveled at Shaham’s smooth, beautiful sound. Hahn’s tone is also gorgeous, and a propulsive force keeps the music constantly on the move. Bell’s recording is notable for the purity of his lines, not to mention the audacious first-movement cadenza that he wrote himself. But despite their many felicities and differences, all three recordings in some way sounded the same to me. They’re all so maddeningly clean.
I would trade the three of them for Fritz Kreisler’s 1927 recording of the Mendelssohn with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra. Kreisler was the consummate Viennese musician, adored by both artists and the public. And yet, near the beginning of his recording, there’s a short but uncomfortable stretch of faulty intonation: his octaves and broken octaves are a mess, which no right-minded producer today would allow to go uncorrected. I’m grateful the mistakes are there. They remind me, among other things, that Kreisler hated to practice. But forget the mistakes and listen on: what a spell he weaves in the rest of the piece! His warm, sensuous, creamy tone, the phrases colored with thick vibrato, the nobility and elegance of certain lines, the luscious slides, the charm, the personality he exudes—they could melt the heart of the iciest stoic.
Similar to Kreisler were the great pianists Artur Schnabel and Alfred Cortot. Cortot was particularly prone to mistakes, spraying wrong notes in his delightful recordings with the abandon of a crazed action painter. He was never much concerned with technical accuracy but cared more about the music itself and its power to communicate human emotion. Listening again to his talismanic recordings of Chopin, I am reminded why there was never a greater interpreter of that composer’s music. In his 1933 recording of Chopin’s Etudes, Opus 10, Cortot’s delicate, fleeting finger work sounds like he’s dropping pearls onto a floor. He was both singer and poet on that record, transforming the piano, which is after all a percussive instrument, consisting of hammers that strike out at wire strings, into a damned good approximation of the human voice. An étude is by definition a piece of music meant to help clarify and develop some aspect of a musician’s technique. But in Cortot’s hands, Chopin’s études shimmer; they charm and delight, make us laugh and sigh. They’re also full of mistakes most amateurs wouldn’t make.
Cortot and Schnabel may have been fallible, but Vladimir Horowitz is forever associated with perfection. No wonder, then, that a famous recital he gave at Carnegie Hall would create a huge controversy. That recital marked the end of a twelve-year hiatus for the twentieth century’s preeminent pianist—a period during which he made recordings but did not play in public. When the date was announced, tickets sold out in two hours. Nearly three thousand people, hungry to see Horowitz again, crowded the hallowed interior of Carnegie Hall on May 9, 1965, and were to be the lucky witnesses to a heroic, legendary recital.
But when the recording of that afternoon’s performance was issued, those who had been in attendance on May 9 were shocked by what they heard. They would have remembered the many glaring mistakes that Horowitz had made that day, but these errors had been edited out of the LP. The “live” recording had been cleaned up! Horowitz had authorized the editing himself, and as a result, his reputation for steely perfection only continued to grow among those who did not know the truth.
In 2003, Sony finally released an unedited version of the recital. One of the most striking of the pianist’s previously edited mistakes occurred almost immediately, after the lusty ovation that greeted Horowitz died down. In the very first phrase of Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s C Major Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue, Horowitz landed on a wrong note, an exposed, ugly misstep framed by the moment of silence between it and the phrase that followed. (Supposedly, the audience gasped, though that is not audible on the recording.) Horowitz made several other mistakes in the Bach, but once I compared this unexpurgated CD to the older, doctored version, I had no doubt that the recent release is the superior one.
The finger slips humanized the performance. They underlined the nervousness Horowitz must have felt during his first public appearance in all those years. And they threw into relief the truly amazing things Horowitz did at other times that afternoon. Listening to Horowitz play that Busoni transcription of Bach is like entering a cathedral of sound. His staccato phrasing had unbelievable power. His left hand boomed like a godly force that few, if any, other pianists could summon up. He beautifully articulated the different voices so that you could hear Bach’s dialogues emerging clearly from the score. Horowitz could be delicate, too, and his playing of the heartbreaking Adagio, with its subtle shading and coloring, must be among the most poignant five minutes in recorded music.
At the end of the Bach, the audience roared. But if Horowitz felt settled in now, you wouldn’t have known it, for his performance of the next piece, the C Major Fantasy by Robert Schumann, a work marked by a sense of unabashed romantic longing, was also filled with mistakes. There’s a notorious moment at the end of the second movement in which Schumann requires the pianist’s hands to fly up and down the keyboard. Just before Horowitz entered into this tricky territory, he hit a wrong note, as if to herald the trouble to come, and soon he began to lose control of the piece. He made it through to the end of the movement, but for about a minute his playing was muddled, strewn with slips, verging on a chaotic unraveling. Then he continued on with the lovely last movement, and all was well again. As it was in the rest of the program, which included an eerie rendition of Alexander Scriabin’s Sonata No. 9, Chopin’s Ballade in G Minor, and four delicate encores.
Perhaps my favorite pianist today is Evgeny Kissin, and he, too, has recorded the Schumann Fantasy that gave Horowitz such fits that day. By contrast to Horowitz, Kissin plays the second-movement coda powerfully, cleanly, daringly, and without a single wrong note. His recording may have been edited in the studio, though I’ve never heard Kissin make a mistake in the three times I’ve seen him perform live. And yet, I prefer Horowitz’s imperfections. His is the more interesting document, the more human account. Perhaps if Horowitz had taken beta-blockers, his performance on May 9, 1965, would have been superhuman. But it would have been artificial, and the audience would have suffered for it. Do we really want to hear artists who have drugged themselves into a state of unnatural calmness? Or do we want to hear human beings being human, faltering during a tricky passage because nervousness has got the better of them? Perfection might awe us, but mistakes are more comforting. It’s good to know, after all, that our gods, despite their best intentions, can fall to earth from time to time.
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