Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
THE BBC seems to have done little if anything to mark the hundredth birthday of one of the most eminent British singers of the first half of this century, the baritone Roy Henderson. This is a shame, given his recorded legacy, and the fact that he is still very much alive. Indeed, at a birthday celebration last Sunday afternoon, he remarked that he is the last surviving artist to have recorded by singing into a large horn, the pre-electric method, that became obsolete in 1925.

Recording techniques have, of course, developed startlingly since the early days, and BBC Radio 3's Settling the Score on Sunday, which traced this development, and "From Cylinders and 78s to CDs and the Internet", had fascinating observations to make. Now that all recorded takes are stored in a computer, rather than on tape, musicians are given extraordinary opportunities, and not just the possibility to edit out all the flaws in their playing.

It was Nicolai Demidenko who confessed that he likes to preside over early editing sessions because for him they mark a further stage in the interpretative process. Phrasings and juxtapositions of ideas which would never have occurred to him during the pressure of continuous performance can be achieved through editing. Creative feedback is possible, and the flexibility of the latest editing techniques can both suggest and encompass new interpretative ideas.

In a programme rich in information on broadcasting as well as recording, the accessibility of serious music across an increasingly wide social spectrum was touched upon, and also the revolution achieved through the transistor radio which made private listening possible as opposed to the previously customary family listening. This led to teenage-driven markets (those "trannies" in bedrooms), and so to the pop explosion. From the purely musical view, however, one of the most perceptive contributions to the programme came from pianist Susan Tomes who focused on one of the more questionable aspects of hi-fi recording. Fidelity to what, we may ask? She has found that the clarity of today's recording techniques are in danger of making her self-consciously aware of her own contribution to a chamber texture - this to the exclusion of listening and responding to her musical partners.

Further examination of the pros and cons of recording was to be heard next day in Radio 3's Opera in Action. Martin Handley examined live opera recordings to see whether the spontaneity and risk-taking involved outweighed the flawless but perhaps rather safe results of the studio. An emotionally extended, but by no means exhausted Birgit Nilsson in the "Liebestod" from a live Bayreuth performance certainly achieved an emotional intensity which studio recordings rarely attain to.

But the point is not quite that easily made. There were flaws here which, on repeated listening without the element of total theatre, could begin to pall, and there's much to be said for a studio's clear exposition of the musical text to which we can bring the theatre of our minds. Still further interesting comparisons were made, and it was fun to hear Callas fighting to sing in La Traviata while being unnecessarily and very audibly prompted.

All of which leaves little space to thank John Tusa for saying most eloquently in his Cheltenham Festival interval talks what all committed artists long to say to the politicians: Art does indeed matter. In fact, it is a matter of life and death.