Listening at Home

JOHN M. CONLY is a former New York and Washington newspaperman, now editor of High Fidelity Magazine.“ They Shall Have Music" is a quarterly feature in the Atlantic.


A PECULIAR and irresistible charm is generated by the sight of musical instruments under concert-stage lighting. The contours and gleaming warm colors of violins and cellos become almost magically affective upon the watcher. The silver of a flute shines as no other silver ever does, and the brass of a horn takes on a glint more golden than gold. The stride and stature of the people who ply these instruments also display a grace not seen in ordinary mortals, and the sound of their tuning-up stirs an anticipation I shall not attempt to describe.

At no time is this pleasant kind of witch work more potent than in the autumn, when cities awaken from their summer stupor, box offices begin to open, and the music lover is given the chance to be recaptured all anew by the Muse of his choice. It is not unnatural that in these weeks the joys of the reacquaintance should be celebrated in the public prints by people who write about music. But it seems uncalled for, to me at least, that so many of these should — as they too regularly do — add to their panegyric a preachment that has become downright odious in recent years. This is, that the only true, complete, full, authentic, satisfying listener’s bliss is in hearing live music, and that, concomitantly, anyone who listens to reproduced music (“canned” is the word commonly used) only thinks he is enjoying it; he really can’t be. It isn’t the genuine article.

Now this thesis is in some part promotional, of course, and therein is laudable. Music critics and commentators are at least peripherally in the music business, and it is their duty to help keep live music alive, by selling it to potential audiences. Amen. However, there is also, almost always, detectable in their suasion something less appealing: a sort of snobbery. It is as if they wanted it understood that they have an intimacy of access to music denied to people who must listen (or who do, whether they must or not) largely through recordings or radio.

I conceive this attitude to be compounded about equally of bad taste and ignorance. It is bad taste (very bad taste) to gloat about one’s geographic and/or economic advantages (a flat in Manhattan; no baby-sitter problem) over other people. It is ignorance, probably willful, not to perceive and acknowledge that there are more valid ways than one to experience something so universal as music.

The preliminary pleasures of concertgoing I have made brief reference to already, partly to show I am aware of them. They are considerable, but I am not sure they are altogether relevant. The glamorous aspect of the instruments and performers in no way guarantees that in the next few minutes they will not make dreadful hash of the Schubert Sixth. And perhaps I should forbear to mention the uncomfortably hurried dinner you were so acutely conscious of subsequently in the taxi, as the traffic jam on Walnut Street effectively killed your chances of hearing the opening Handel Concerto Grosso. Not that it really mattered (you might as well, after all, have dashed for the drugstore and that helpful foaming alkaline potion), since the orchestra, dismally assisted by the forty empty seats awaiting the additional forces for Ein Heldenleben, handled the Handel strictly as befitted a warm-up item, while the tardy paying customers — music lovers all — lined up behind the ushers to chat vivaciously until it should be over.

Perhaps this is uncharitable, but it is not inaccurate. My contention is that, if you want to hear Op. 6, No. 4, which is a genuine masterpiece, there is a way to do so which Handel probably would have preferred that you take. Eat your dinner with fitting deliberation. Carry your coffee or brandy, if you fancy these amenities, into the living room with you. Make sure no dust clings to stylus or disk, then lower the one on the other, dispose yourself comfortably, and let Hermann Scherchen or Dr. Boyd Neel take care of Op. 6, No. 4. No one able to do so better is at all likely to invade your neighborhood within the year, if ever.

You can light a cigarette if you want to; and if it makes you cough, no one will hiss at you from behind. You don’t have to wonder what to do with your overcoat, and there is no lady sitting just in front of you who will certainly lose a bobby pin any minute if she doesn’t stop helping the conductor keep time. You — and your own chosen company — are alone with Handel. And if the renewed acquaintance seems hard to break, it needn’t be broken. You can follow Op. 6, No. 4, with Op. 6, No. 5, before you move on to the Schubert. (Beecham, of course. Has he been to your town lately to play it?) Best of all, in the view of a good many people who enjoy Handel and Schubert, you won’t have to hear Ein Heldenleben at all.

If it happens that Strauss is what you do particularly crave — we will make it Don Quixote instead of Ein Heldenleben — it can be admitted that you probably would fare better in the concert hall than at home. Most good orchestras can play this work well even for a bad conductor. Strauss embodied its main effects in tonal mixtures and contrasts, which no misinterpretation can vitiate. However, he intended them to be set forth in a large hall by a huge orchestra. The only reliable way known yet to produce the effect of a huge orchestra in a large hall — certain loudspeaker manufacturers to the contrary notwithstanding — is to get a large hall and put a huge orchestra in it.

In other words, what you are after when you go to hear Don Quixote in live performance is, if you will permit the expression, hi-fi. Were it interpretative know-how you sought, you’d be better off with the late Clemens Krauss, whose London recording is of very creditable fidelity, but not like the real thing.

And here is a point on which the attitude of the anti-mechanicals, if they can be so called, puzzles me. When and if they judge recordings, it is always musical values they claim to weigh. Sonic fidelity should not be a criterion. Among issues of the Mozart G Minor Symphony, it is the ancient, murkily recorded Beecham we should get, rather than the later, brighter Münchinger or Leinsdorf, since Beecham finds things in the symphony they don’t. This I would no more deny than would the Messrs. Leinsdorf and Münchinger. But when the local city symphony, led by a reasonably competent conductor, essays the G Minor, we are bid attend that in preference to any records — also for musical reasons. Can these be the same musical reasons we met a half-paragraph ago?

I don’t think so. There are plenty of good non-musical reasons to attend local live performances — economic responsibility for the art’s future, community loyalty, gregariousness, weariness of one’s own four walls, interest in the performers. But the musical reasons do not invariably line up so neatly on one side or the other.

Take the matter of company. La Bohème and Messiah certainly are best heard when one is among a sizable audience; so are the sermonic Brahms First and the dancing Till Eulenspiegel. With a set of Chopin Nocturnes or the Mozart Clarinet Quintet it doesn’t make much difference: large group, small group, even solitude. With a Bartók or a late Beethoven quartet, any distraction of attention brings a very serious loss, and a large audience becomes a positive hazard; the lone listener may be the ideal one for these profoundly introspective works. And the lone listener implies the phonograph.

There is also the question of mood and time. One evening lately I stayed away from what I knew would be an excellently played recital of violin music by French Impressionists, pleading pressure of work. The actual pressure was of mood. There are times when I feel like going adrift with Debussy for a half hour, and times when I don’t. Important music is important partly because it answers an emotional call, a need from within us.

But our emotional needs are fitful things, not well adjusted to the exigencies of concert program making. This is what makes it so safe to program Beethoven or Tchaikovsky: encouragement. and commiseration are always in demand from a statistically dependable segment of the listening populace. Apart from scheduling Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, and certain other reliables, concert managements prefer to ignore this whole problem, on the ground that there is nothing they can do about it. They’re right, there isn’t.

There is, of course, something the home listener can do about it for himself. There will be occasions when, to dredge up an extreme and perhaps unlikely example, he will have a precise craving for exactly what is contained in, say, Haydn’s Symphony No. 39, unmistakably written out of dark anger or sorrow conquered and transformed, in the course of expression, into something quite different, a facet of endurance. The want for Haydn’s fellowship here cannot accede to a fiveyear delay, until some management schedules it.

The urge need not always be so serious, still to be serious enough. Music lovers can be as whimsical in their sudden wants as expectant mothers are supposed to be. I have felt a sudden and unaccountable urge, sometimes at odd hours, to hear the wonderful jogging start of the marriage broker’s sales talk from The Bartered Bride, or to be unhampered of my concerns by the lilting irrelevance of Goldmark’s Rustic Wedding Symphony. And there is liberation from almost any stress, at a moment’s notice, in a Bach chorale prelude played by Helmut Walcha on the ancient ivory-piped organ at Cappel. What treachery to art could lie in this use of it ?

There recurs the question of environment, of acoustic realism. The anti-mechanicals have a point here, but its force depends on circumstances too variant to be dogmatic about — from either side.

For some years my own geographical circumstances forced me to take my live music in a convention hall, a vast enclosure like an indoor football field. Acoustically (and I experimented conscientiously, attempting to find a tolerable listening location) this was an abomination beyond my powers to describe. There is, I should almost be willing to swear, no living room in the United States which, fitted with $300 worth of highfidelity equipment, could not be made to deliver music more endurably than that cavernous monstrosity. But that was an extreme case (I trust).

As a general thing, our better concert halls can make Rachmaninoff and Sibelius sound very good. Also as a general thing, however, they cannot do the same for Mozart. And beyond that point I cannot be budged. A hall that makes the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto sound more compelling than the Mozart 39th Symphony is a hall that I shall do a certain amount of staying away from. There is no question of partisanship or resentment; it is simply a matter of taste.

In my living room, to be sure, Mozart may come off slightly better than Rachmaninoff, simply because his music sounds a little more credible there. In a very large living room, if the loudspeaker system is properly disposed, an orchestra of eighteenth-century dimensions can be reproduced convincingly. There are a couple of test records I can recommend, if you want to try your listening room. One is the Mozart 17th Divertimento, performed by Jan Tomasow, Felix Prohaska, and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra on Vanguard 441. The other (and I admit to a laxness about the separation of centuries) is the Beethoven Fifth played by the late Erich Kleiber for London. This latter is unique in that the louder I have played it for people (until the amplifier and loudspeaker began to register protests) the better it sounded to them. Some demanded proof that it was not a stereophonic recording, or that some other aural trickery had not been worked on them.

No stereophony or aural trickery at all is needed, of course, to reproduce satisfactorily in almost anyone’s living room music that was written to be played there, meaning chamber music. In dealing even with the small orchestra of the aforementioned Mozart divertimento, the recording engineer must afford a little perspective to his sound. In that particular instance, he has succeeded in making Mr. Tomasow’s violin seem to be almost precisely where your loudspeaker is, while the orchestra is deployed behind him, its sound just a hint more diffuse and reverberant than his.

With a string quartet or a grand piano, considerably more intimacy is permissible. The listener may want to reproduce the music as loud as it would sound in actual performance in his room; so the sound should have the close-up quality needed to give it realism at that volume.

Even greater immediacy can be palatable in a recording of a harpsichord, say, or a solo human voice; the governing factor would seem to be how much the engineer wants to capture of the singer’s inhaling or the visceral noises of the harpsichord.

Incidentally, and with all due and fond respect to Mme. Landowska, she must share with the phonograph, especially the high-fidelity phonograph, the credit for re-establishing the harpsichord as a popular instrument. Mine. Landowska is one of rather few artists who are truly exciting to see in action, but at her rare recitals it is difficult to get near enough to her to hear her properly as well. Anyway, once seen she is easily recalled to the mind’s eye, and that is the way I shall choose to see her, if at the same time I can listen in proper proximity to the myriad voices of her marvelous Pleyel instrument.

Perhaps it is worth noting here a relevant bit of musical snobbishness commonly expressed by the antimechanicals: they deplore efforts to make the harpsichord display “all the colorations of an orchestra.”This seems to me quite simply an effort to foist upon us a standard developed purely out of the inadequacies of concert halls. Heard well at close range, a harpsichord has an almost orchestral spectrum of tone colors, and from the kind and variety of music Domenico Scarlatti wrote for it, it seems indisputable to me — just from evidence of car — that he was keenly aware of this potential; in a sense he was anticipating the orchestra.

Finally, there is something that the non-record listener doesn’t know about record listeners. In some degree they regard the phonograph as a musical instrument. They don’t mind records sounding like records, as records must when they are purveying Brahms or Elgar. Peter Bartók, the composer’s son, admitted once that when he first heard the “ Eroica” in live performance, he was vaguely disappointed. It didn’t sound like his records of it. He missed even the needle-hiss and the pauses while the changer went about its work. What he had learned to love was not simply the “Eroica,” it was his “Eroica.” A great many of us made our earliest acquaintance with important music through records and radio, and we were conditioned to a kind of musical listening generically different from that afforded by concert attendance. It is not necessarily an inferior way of listening, and in one respect it offers a very decided advantage. The way to go about learning and loving a piece of music is to hear it over and over again. A solitary exposure to the Walton Viola Concerto is likely to leave the hearer undecided. What he needs to help him make up his mind about it (in the easiest way, by the discovery that he enjoys it) is to hear it again — tomorrow, not the year after next.

Record Reviews

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (Karl Münchinger conducting Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra; London LL1457/8: two 12”). These have been available singly on ten-inch disks. This remastering puts them all on two twelves, in the standard RIAA equalization, and with sound generally enlivened. In many ways these are to me the most satisfactory Brandenburgs, their chief rivals being those recorded for Epic by Paul Sacher. There is very little to choose between the sets; you’ll be happy with either.

Bach: The Passion According to St. John (Günther Ramin conducting vocal soloists, chamber orchestra, Choir of St. Thomas’ Church, Leipzig; Archive ARC-3045-47: three 12” with complete documentation). This set is an odd combination of perfectionism and latitude, sentiment and professional practicality. Deutsche Grammophon’s musical directors hired excellent solo singers and a chamber ensemble equipped with authentic period instruments, then set them to playing in the church where Bach first offered the St. John Passion, his first grand choral work. The direction they gave over to the man who now holds Bach’s job as Cantor of St. Thomas’, and the choral chores to his choir. Cantor Ramin conducts admirably, but the choir is strictly amateur. The result is an alternation of polish and crudity which may disturb some listeners; it did me. Charm is present, too, but I think I would stay with the more conventional Grossman version for Vox.

Beethoven: Concerto No. 5, “Emperor” (Robert Casadesus, piano; Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra; Columbia ML-5100: 12”). A new good “Emperor” is always worth welcoming, and this is a good one. (There are none perfect.) Its defects include erratic tempos in the finale and Some roughness in the sound. It was recorded, I suppose by engineers of Philips Electric, Columbia’s European affiliate, in Paris, while the orchestra was on tour. I slightly prefer the Backhaus-Krauss version (London) or the GiesekingKrauss (Columbia also), but this one is worth hearing.

Brahms: A German Requiem (Fritz Lehmann conducting soloists, Berlin Motet Choir, St. Hedwig’s Cathedral Choir, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Decca DX-136: two 12”). There are four excellent recorded performances of the German Requiem, two old, two new, and this is probably the best. George Solti’s version for Capitol is more dramatic in concept, but his Frankfort performers cannot deliver the atmosphere of enormous churchly quiet the work needs from time to time, and the Berliners can. Further, there is tremendous force, without violence, in their climaxes, and a transparency in their pianissimos that must be heard to be appreciated. The soloists arc only so-so, but the engineering is beyond complaint.

Dvořák: Trio in F Minor, Op. 65 with Haydn: Trio No. 3 in C (David Oistrakh, violin; Sviatoslav Knushevitzky, cello; Lev Oborin, piano; Westminster XWN-18176: 12”). Although the famous violinist gets overprominent billing on the jacket, he keeps his place in the ensemble playing. All three of the performers, well recorded, seem to be dedicated Romanticists, so the Dvořák emerges lyrically beautiful, the Haydn a liltle frostbitten with reverence, though still very enjoyable.

Grieg: Lyric Suite; Norwegian Dances;Wedding Day at Troldhaugen;Holberg Suite (Edouard van Remoortel conducting Bamberg Symphony Orchestra; Vox PL-9840: 12”). Most conductors seem to take Grieg’s shorter compositions casually. How vital and interesting they can be made to sound is shown here by young Mr. van Remoortel, who sounds pretty vital and interesting himself. The recording is bright and dear.

Mozart: “Haffner” Serenade (Mogens Wöldike concluding Vienna State Opera Orchestra; Vanguard VRS-483: 12”). Perhaps Mozart’s first big work for full orchestra, this wedding-festival suite is thought to have been written for interrupted rather than continuous listening. So if it seems long — especially with the addition of the uncustomary introductory march — why not listen to it with pauses for refreshment or conversation? That way it is enduringly delightful, and this recording of it has precisely the proper polite intrusive charm.

Mozart: The Complete Organ Music, subtitled “A Mozart Organ Tour” (E. Power Biggs, organ; Bernhard Paumgartner conducting the Camerata Academica Orchestra of Salzburg; Columbia K3L-231: three 12”). This album may or may not be appreciated by E. Power Biggs’ enormous following of Sunday morning radio listeners. They will have to look out for themselves. The point to be made here is that it absolutely must not be passed over by anyone intent on acquiring the cream of the crop of records generated by the Mozart Bicentennial. Herein are (as main fare) seventeen sonatas for organ and orchestra, skimpily offered on disks heretofore, which present a Mozart unfamiliar to most of us — a composer immensely interested in sound effects. Majesty, mystery, and playfulness succeed one another irresistibly; the newness never fades. Biggs (who was his own recording director) never fails, either, to make the most of the material, and Paumgartner’s festival-year chamber orchestra rises nobly to his challenge. The most important music was recorded by the 1914 Salzburg organ, but a couple of early instruments furnish piquant variety, and the whole affair is a lasting delight. Most highly recommended.

Rachmaninoff: Concerto No. 2 (Clifford Curzon, piano; Sir Adrian Boult conducting London Philharmonic Orchestra; London LL-1424: 12”). This seems to me far and away the best recording of a Rachmaninoff Second; both piano and orchestra come across sumptuously. Curzon and Boult approach the work with a delicacy and deliberateness not usually brought to it, which I like. A new Columbia version by Istomin and the Philadelphia Orchestra might rival this one, had not Columbia done something strange with its microphones.

Respighi:Feste Romane with Kodály:Háry JánosSuite (Arturo Toscanini conducting NBC Symphony Orchestra; RCA Victor LM1973: 12”). The Roman Festivals has sound almost incredible for a recording made in 1949 (it has been issued earlier as LM-55, remastered for this pressing), and Toscanini’s excited performance almost makes the music seem worth playing. The Háry János, taken from a 1947 broadcast transcription, is acceptable in sound and played almost as convincingly as Laszlo Halasz does it for Remington, but not quite.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique” (Igor Markevitch conducting Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Decca DL-9811: 12”). As a complete presentation, the newest “Pathétique” will have to be rated here as slightly less satisfactory than the Monteux and Ormandy versions, but the brasses of the Berliners, especially in the march-scherzo, certainly deserve some kind of special kudos; you do not often hear such hair-raising sounds. If you don’t want to buy this, at least try to borrow it.

Bjoerling Sings at Carnegie Hall (Jussi Bjoerling, tenor; Frederick Schauwecker, piano; RCA Victor LM-2003: 12”). For just under twenty years, it has been stoutly maintained by Bjoerling admirers that Bjoerling has the most beautiful tenor voice in the world, and he probably has. He may not have it much longer, however (it is like having the most lethal left hook in the world), and so this record, made at an actual performance a year ago, may have a sort of historical significance for his following. For a concert recording, it is good, and his performances — of favorite arias and classic and semiclassic songs — show him at his genial and unstinting best. Try the Strauss Traum durch die Dämmerung and the Tosca aria È lucevan le stelle.

The Spirit of ‘76; Ruffles and Flourishes (Frederick Fennell conducting members of the Eastman Symphonic Wind Ensemble; Mercury MG-50111 and MG-50112: two separate 12”). The family of Frederick Fennell, a descendant of General Israel Putnam, has devoted itself avocationally for at least three generations to practicing and perpetuating the field and camp music of the American armed services, and F.F. is still at it. He could not have found better accomplices than the high-fidelity zealots of Mercury Records, and the results are likely to scare the blazes out of your neighbors if you behave like a fearless, red-blooded American and buy this pair of disks. I should suggest starting with the fife-anddrum (’76) collection. Others may prefer the trumpet-and-drum (R&F) selections. Either way, you end up with both, and quite possibly a ruptured loudspeaker and a broken lease to boot, but the experience is worth it.