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"What are the best recordings for XY viola concerto?" Sometimes I get asked this question by some visitors of this website, so I've decided to make this page.
Like with other things, I think that, generally, there is not an absolute best, different things have different good and bad aspects, according also to people's different tastes, therefore I'll talk about what I prefer.

So, my favourite recordings are the "old" ones (made up to the '50s-'60s), also called historical, and live recordings (which are quite rare nowadays) made also more recently and I'm not referring only to viola or classical music but to all records. The reason I prefer these is that they are real, like a live performance, while modern ones sound a bit artificial to me.

This depends on how a recording is made and, since not everybody knows how they are made, I need to hint at this and also to mention a very interesting book I read.

How are recordings made?

The first commercial sound recordings were made at the end of the 19th century: in 1878 Edison patented the phonograph cylinder, with recordings made on wax cylinders. About ten years later, the double sided disc was invented, and then from about 1910 to 1950s the 78 rpm (revolutions per minute) disc was the standard. Then came the 45 and 33 rpm discs, that lasted 'till the 1980s, when the CD (compact disc) started to be used and replaced them. In the 1940s also magnetic tapes became commercially available and became the basis for the production of most commercial recordings (discs). More recently we have seen the electronic files and players we all know and use today.

At the beginning, recordings were very short, the cylinders and discs could reproduce only two minutes of music. With the advancement of recording and discs production techniques, it was possible to produce discs of longer and longer duration, with four to maximum seven minutes of music on the 78 rpm disc. Still, to listen to a symphony by Beethoven, for example, one had to flip several 78 rpm discs and bear many interruptions. The 33 rpm disc (appropriately called "long-playing", or LP) was a very important innovation, as it could contain around 23 minutes of music per side, making it possible to reproduce a whole symphony or concerto on one disc, with only one interruption. Therefore 33 rpm discs were initially generally used for classical music, while 45 rpm discs were used for single songs.

Recordings were made in one take, that is, performers had to perform a piece of music from the beginning to the end, as perfect as possible. If something went wrong or there was a mistake, they had to redo the whole 4 to 7 minutes of performance and recording again. The same initially applied to longer performances for 33 rpm discs.

With more sophisticated recording technologies, sound engineers were given the opportunity to "cut and paste" a recording in order to correct mistakes without having to re-record the whole composition or movement. So the performer, be it a soloist or group or orchestra, could perform a movement (or part of it) several times, and the sound engineers could take the best bits from the several recordings and join them to create the "perfect" performance, with no mistakes. Initially, they had to physically cut and paste the tape, but now everything is done electronically.

Now everything can be modified and improved: in the past, the notes pitch could not be modified, so the notes were either in tune or not; now it is possible to correct every single note in case it's slightly out of tune. Speed could not be modified, as this would have affected the pitch; volume and balance between instruments can be modified now; special effects can be added: a recording can be done in a studio with no reverberation at all and then have the "St. Paul's Cathedral" or "Westminster Cathedral" or other reverberation effects added.

So you can see the difference: a recording of an uninterrupted performance is like a live concert, the performer is focused on the whole work and musical communication, putting all his/her concentration, energies and emotion into it.

Instead, when performers have to repeat only short passages of a work, sometimes even only a few bars, to produce a perfect performance, they cannot have the same concentration and the same emotional involvement of a live performance.

Also, with old and live recordings you know that what you hear is really what the performers were able to do, it's all their merit and not the sound engineer's merit.

I don't mean to say that all performers are not good players, however even a quite bad performer now could make a good recording, with the help of good sound engineers. Actually, the best performers can and do try to make as least cuts as possible, because they know the risks of recordings with too many cuts. However, even very good performers in a live concert sound different from their own recordings.

Therefore, in old and live recordings you can have some noises and imperfections but also more spontaneity. I find that many (not all) modern recordings are just "too perfect", everything is OK, no mistakes but also no emotion, they don't touch me, don't move me.

Now, knowing what's behind recordings, try and listen to some old or live recordings and you'll notice some differences. Being this a website about the viola, I can't help saying that my favourite viola recordings are those by William Primrose.

William Primrose Collection, Vol. 4
William Primrose collection,
vol.4: Handel, Viola concerto
Berlioz, Harold in Italy

Toscanini, Mp3

William Primrose plays Mozart: Sinfonia concertante
Mozart: Sinfonia concertante
William Primrose, viola
Jascha Heifetz, violin; CD
More Primrose's Mp3s More CDs of William Primrose

Live Recordings

Modern live recordings, with this I mean a recording made at a public concert or performance, are very rare, especially those of classical music, for the reasons mentioned above. Leonard Bernstein used to like doing live recording, exactly for the same reasons. Some live recordings were made at some special occasions, such as the concert with Beethoven 's Ninth Symphony for the fall of Berlin wall, conducted by Bernstein.

Recordings of Composers Performers

Another type of recordings I like are those where the composer is also the conductor or the performer.
Composers In Person - CDs This can happen only with 20th century composers, obviously. The composer may not be the "best" conductor or performer, but I think he can better convey his idea of how he intended his music. Therefore I have recordings of Stravinsky, Bernstein, Rachmaninoff, Hindemith (on the viola), Britten, Walton performing their own works.

For those who love composers' performances, I recommend this CD collection of recordings by composers in person, there are 22 CDs in the box.

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Performing Music in the Age of Recording

"Performing Music in the Age of Recording" is the title of a very interesting book I read recently. It is a big book but it's full of anecdotes so it's easy to read. It analyzes how recordings have affected performers' and audience's attitude to live performances.

On one side, recordings have contributed to raising the quality of musical performances, as a performer doesn't want to leave a permanent memory (a recording) of him/herself as a "bad" performer.

At the same time, listeners have become accustomed to listening to recorded performances that are nearly perfect, more and more so with more sophisticated technologies. Therefore they expect to hear the same at a live concert: a perfect performance. Performers compare themselves to recordings and this places a lot more tension on them, who try to emulate perfect recordings.
Performing Music in the Age of Recording
Performing Music in
the Age of Recording
The book also compares the attitude and type of interaction between performers and audience at concerts.

Now, at classical music concerts, listeners are expected to sit in a quasi religious silence (generally, although things are changing a bit), waiting for the end of a compositions before clapping. We take this for granted, yet it wasn't always like this.

When there were no recordings, concert audiences knew that it might have been years before they could hear the same composition again, so it was common to ask for encores that often were the repetition of a whole symphony movement(s).

Also, clapping between or even during movements was common and accepted.

The pianist Ferruccio Busoni is also mentioned: he said that whenever he played Beethoven's 5th piano concerto, after the opening piano chords and cadenzas, the audience would invariably clap.

I discovered similar information also from other sources. Hector Berlioz in his Memoirs tells that the audience used to ask him to repeat the March to the scaffold, from his Symphonie fantastique, and address the performers with their comments, loudly.

Reports of Paganini's concerts refer, as something unusual and exceptional, that when Paganini played everybody was silent, such was his mesmerizing power.

More recently, Lionel Tertis refers in his My viola and I, that on one occasion when he performed a viola concerto the audience wanted an encore and the conductor announced that they were going to repeat the whole viola concerto and they did it!

Historical recordings for viola

Here are a few more recordings for viola, in addition to those you've seen earlier on this page. If you've never listened to historical recordings, you may find them somehow "strange" at first. There may be some noises, it's also because the overall sonority is different, not stereo, performing styles change over time, (like everything else). It's like looking at old photos of those years: old cars, different clothes, hats, hairstyles. The more old photos you see, the more they become familiar to you, I wish you to enjoy them more.

Heard any good Audiobooks lately? Get one free!
William Primrose plays
Berlioz's Harold in Italy, Mp3

Walton viola concerto CD: William Primrose
William Walton
Concerto for viola CD,
William Primrose, viola
William Walton, conductor
Hindemith plays Hindemith, violaComposers in person, CD
Hindemith plays Hindemith

Lionel Tertis, viola, plays Dohnányi, Brahms, Handel

Lionel Tertis, viola, plays
Dohnányi, Brahms, Handel
Lionel Tertis, viola: Mozart, Schubert, Dvorák
Lionel Tertis, viola:
Mozart, Schubert, Dvorák...

Lionel Tertis CDs
Paul Hindemith plays Hindemith
Viola recital:
Hindemith plays Hindemith,Beethoven,
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William Primrose

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Paul Hindemith plays Hindemith
Viola recital:
Paul Hindemith
plays Hindemith + Beethoven,

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Bernstein conducts Bernstein
Bernstein conducts
Bernstein, Mp3