Historical Recordings

I loved classical music as a child. I clearly remember my enthusiasm when hearing certain classics, like Brahms’ Fourth or Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphonies. For a while, however, my love for this form of music waned, despite my study of the piano. It was my piano teacher in Montreal who woke me up to the brilliance of another dimension to music and changed the course of my life.

At the age of 15 or so, I bought a terrible record of the Beethoven 32 Variations (by Bruno Leonardo Gelber, for those who want to know) because I was learning the work. My teacher commented on how thin the record was and took me to her hallway closet to show me her collection of 78s. We had a good laugh as we looked at how thick the old records were. She was raving about the wonderful performances, wishing that she could find the 78s she’d had of Horowitz playing the 32 Variations, when one of the sets she pulled out caught my attention. “Look,” she said, “Rachmaninoff plays Rachmaninoff.”

Now, I had heard of Rachmaninoff before, although I didn’t know his music very well (philistine that I was!), but what struck me was the concept of a composer playing his own music. I was very disappointed by Gelber’s performance and was hoping for something more authoritative. If only we could hear composers play their own works… And here was a set of Rachmaninoff playing his own compositions! I realized that I had no idea about the history of recording: when were the first records made? What composers had recorded their own works?

My parents’ old record player played 78s, so I asked if I could borrow the records and took them home and listened with fascination. Sure, there were scratches, but the sound was quite clear and it was, of course, an authoritative performance. I began to think about how recording must have been much more complicated in the past, given the more restrictive format of recording on 78s (no tape splicing meant that performances were recorded in ‘live’ 4-minute segments, and sequenced from one record to the next). It seemed natural that as a result, only the best artists would be able to make recordings. I wondered if perhaps due to the challenging nature of recording back then the quality of musicians was higher than those featured in today’s recordings.

And thus began a quest to learn more about the musicians of the past and how they performed. Harold C Schonberg’s classic tome ‘The Great Pianists’ served as an important reference, with his enthusiastic descriptions of many great pianists from the early years of the keyboard through to the dawn of recording and the present day. I had never heard of Cortot, Hofmann, Friedman, Bauer, and so many others, and with his suggested pianists in mind, I scoured second-hand shops looking for records of these artists. Over the coming weeks, months, and years, I found many such records, and their liner notes and other reference materials helped me to learn more about the lives and artistry of many fascinating musicians.

As I listened to these old records, I postulated that with less of a time lag between the time of composition of the great repertoire and the time that recordings were made, performers in the 20s, 30s, and 40s might have been doing more justice to the composers. Of course it had not yet struck me that there were still mannerisms of the time that had to be taken into account – Beethoven might have been played with a 19th-century approach that did not necessarily correspond to the style in vogue at the time he composed – yet for a number of composers, my theory made sense. I was particularly struck by the difference between Rachmaninoff’s own performances and those of pianists 50 years later, even 20 years later. If a significant change had taken place in so short a period of time, what damage were we inflicting on the likes of Bach and Beethoven? Since it was possible to hear students of the great Liszt performing his works, there was clearly lots to be learned.

However, I felt then (as I do now) that the antiseptic attempt at ‘original instruments’ and ‘authentic performance practice’ was missing the point. Following the text with a microscope gives one a better view of the map but not the territory, and clearly the composers would have wanted to explore instruments with greater sonic and interpretative capabilities than those that were available to them. I believe, as the pianist Dinu Lipatti phrased it, that music lives beyond the means of interpretation used at the time of its composition – this is what renders it timeless. The instruments used were at best an approximation of the sounds that the composers heard with their inner ear.

I continue to relish the performers of the past, as well as those worthwhile talents of today who have managed to cut through the heartless industry that has overtaken the art of music. All musical interpreters worth their salt are performing the same task: expressing emotion through sound. While the modern piano industry has done untold damage, with competitions that reduce playing down to quantifiable standards such as technical accuracy without a feasible way of ‘grading’ emotional expressiveness and individuality, there are still some brilliant performers today…though some of these are not the ones most commonly heard.

This site will serve as a resource with which to shed light on the greatest pianists of the past and present. Enjoy!