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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Singing Into a Can

Some presumptive thoughts on the nature of classical recordings.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Georg Solti and producer John Culshaw at work in the Sofiensaal, Vienna.
Photo © Decca Classics/UMG.
2017 is winding down and the holiday shopping season is around the corner. That means it's time to start looking at the newest crop of recordings arriving at Superconductor Central (my Brooklyn apartment.) Before delving into these releases I wanted to hold forth (cos it's my dime) about the nature of the classical recording industry, with some,thoughts on its history, its evolution and its way forward in the 21st century.

Even when it was possible for the music industry to make a retail profit, the complete recordings of Wagner operas do not sell anywhere near as well as the newest records by hip hop stars or pop divas. But these two very different forms of record entertainment have links forged in the fires of time. With that in mind let's take a look back at the fertile period halfway through the 20th century, where record companies (most of which no longer exist) used available technology to birth what is for better approach for worse the modern recording industry.

Early recordings were crude, first made using cylinder recorders, wax discs and acetates. Recording devices would carve a wax disc, a delicate and tenuous procedure that led to much snap, crackle and pop. The invention of magnetic tape (in 1928) replaced wire recording and wax, and led to a great improvement in sound quality. Some of the 1930s mono recordings that are now available on compact disc are well worth exploring, but there were still limitations.

Advances in recording technology and the arrival of the long playing record (in 1948) changed things further. Now it was possible to listen to twenty minutes of music at a time without having to hon through the hassle of changing discs. Opera performances, once confined to the radio waves, now entered the living room for the first time. stereo technology, around since 1933 applied itself to,the lip in 1957, and audiophiles were in heaven--or at least the kind of purgatory that makes one own three recordings of Die Frau One Schatten.

All this new tech lead to a virtual gold rush as orchestras, maestros and record companies rushed to lay down the symphonies of Beethoven, the operas of Puccini and Mozart, and a little later, the insanely large ambitious operas of Wagner and Strauss. Behind the latter effort at Decca Records was a man named John Culshaw, and it was at the Sofiensaal, an old ballroom in Vienna, where the Decca team would revolutionize the way recordings were made.

Culshaw is accredited as the father of so-called “SonicStage” technology, a Decca trademark. Singers were placed under an array of microphones and instructed to stand in certain places on the recording stage, This conveyed the idea of the singers interacting on opposite stereo channels. The addition of occasional theatrical sound effects (some successful, others not) enhanced (or detracted) from the listeners' experience. At the same time, other teams from other record companies pioneered the art of making live recordings, putting mics in concert halls and opera houses tho freeze performances for home listening. For the next thirty-odd years, music recording would be divided into these two styles, live recordings and studio wizardry.

Eventually all this recording technology got adopted by rock bands, who would make further advancements in parallel with the pair classical siblings.

The final shot of the revolution was also its death knell. The invention of the compact disc and digital recording technology triggered another gold rush. (A collaborative effort, the CD was created by both Philips and Sony working together. Its length of 72 minutes was chosen because that's how long Herbert von Karajan's performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony took.) In the decades that followed the collapse of the huge, bloated corporate industry collapsed. It survives in a consolidated form as (minor) divisions of a few monolithic conglomerates. That, plus the rise of online file sharing almost killed the industry.


This month, Superconductor plans to examine recordings made in the new style, a hybrid between the controlled hothouse environment of the Sofiensaal and the opera house. These new presentations of three very different operas will hopefully serve as a kind of laboratory and a way forward and provide you, the reader with worthy items of consideration, and possibly a few gift ideas in the weeks to come. As for what we're reviewing, keep watching this space.

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