You can't beat those old recordings for great performances
New York — The grand irony of recordings today is that as the technology comes closer and closer to re-creating concert-hall realism, the performances that this realism is meant to enshrine are becoming increasingly bland and uninteresting.
I have just begun to explore the compact disk (CD) medium, and the preliminary results of this high-tech system are aurally stunning. At its best, the quality of sound on a good system is a radical departure from the traditional vinyl grooved disk.
Still, I find I spend most of my recreational listening hours with performers and performances before 1960. It is the only true contact we have with past musical performances - what the traditions were, what the technical limitations of instrumentalists were, how they got around those limitations, how they dug deep below the surface to elucidate the mysterious core of the music at hand.
For opera, there is no question that the older performances captured a truer sense of performance and captured a truer sense of what the composer must have wanted to hear. Large voices were taken for granted back then, and more often than not, the right voice sang the right role. But it is not just opera that gains in a look back. How can one not listen to a Casals performance and weep? How can one not be moved at hearing Holst conduct his own ''The Planets'' or thrilled by Pierre Monteux re-creating his world-premiere performance of Stravinsky's ''Le Sacre du Printemps?'' We can chart the progress of a Vladimir Horowitz or a Jascha Heifetz, we can study Artur Schnabel's definitive Beethoven sonata cycle to better understand his perceptions of the musical truths found in that colossal body of keyboard music.
I marvel that so few young performers I come across really care to listen to these old performers. Singers in particular exhibit this myopia. Ask a young tenor today who he admires, and he'll say Pavarotti or Domingo. Going further back in time, mention Jussi Bjorling, and he goes blank. Mention Beniamino Gigli or Tito Schipa and the blankness turns to incomprehension.
Recordings are our musical archive. A collection can just as easily be a catalog of great performances in history as it can be a comprehensive overview of music. There is more integrity and musical truth captured in the grooves of a Furtwangler performance in grungy dim mono than in the ultrarealistic new performances on CD.
We are privileged to be able to hear our musical past. A century ago, one had to rely on written reports. We now have no idea what improvisation in Mozart's era was really like. Yet today, we know what Mahler wanted in his music by way of such conductors as Mengelberg, Walter, Klemperer.
Granted, the sound on some of the older performances leaves much to be desired. But the Japanese are finding new ways to get maximum sound out of those old grooves. N.Y. City Opera strike settled
The New York City Opera (NYCO) strike has finally been settled. By the time the company opens its doors Sept. 21 with a new production of Massenet's ''Cendrillon'' (''Cinderella'') the season of this important cultural institution will have been truncated by eight weeks.
Even so, general director Beverly Sills has announced that only four productions will be lost: New stagings of Puccini's ''La Rondine'' and Gilbert and Sullivan's ''The Mikado'' will move to next season; a revival of Mozart's ''The Magic Flute'' will be rescheduled as soon thereafter as possible, and Puccini's ''La Fanciulla del West'' may be lost.
What was good about this summer-fall season is that casts remain intact, though without the ''Puccini Festival'' focus which was to have dominated the summer activities.
The strike became an endurance match between the NYCO and Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians - i.e., the orchestra - as prompted by its new president, John Glasel, elected to the post on a ''militant'' platform. He tried to get a company carrying a $2 million deficit to acquiesce to pay hikes across three years, of $50, $70, and, in the third year, $100 per week. He wanted an increase of guaranteed work weeks from the actual 20 this season and 21 next season to 25, then 28, then 30 in 1985. Finally he wanted a reduction from six to five performances a week.
The company balked. Its counterproposal offered raise increments of approximately $35 per year for each of the three years, guaranteed work weeks of 21, 24, then 26 in 1985, and a workload reduction to 5.5 performances a week.
In a sense, the company won its battle, but this has never been the fundamental issue. Nor is the issue Mr. Glasel's inability to crack the company and extract a big settlement for the orchestra. Rather, at the heart of the issue was that the action taken by the eight other unions of the company, which wrote Mr. Glasel a collective letter requesting that Local 802 and NYCO agree to binding arbitration. In other words, the other unions wanted to go back to work and were therefore unwilling to back what were felt to be 802's unreasonable demands.
Mr. Glasel cried ''betrayal'' and even lashed out against the company, alleging - without documentation - financial and managerial corruption in the highest places.
Why, then, this grudge match which kept a large payroll unemployed? Is it that Mr. Glasel has not forgiven Miss Sills for not informing each member of the company of plans to combine two separate seasons into one summer/fall unit? Was he still resentful that the company chose a Broadway producer to negotiate a six-week run of Leonard Bernstein's ''Candide''? That would have put a reduced orchestra on a Broadway contract with a different pay scale. But one would have thought the collapse of that revival over this issue would have been repayment enough.
(Ironically, the new contract gives NYCO flexibility in trying to set up Broadway-type revivals at the state theater or elsewhere with a reduced orchestra sharing the responsibilities.)
The time has come to forgive and forge on. Grudge matches accomplish nothing and violate the spirit of the art form everyone is striving to improve. Miss Sills has made her understandable share of judgmental errors in her transition from beloved diva to general director. Mr. Glasel is still trying to find a profile as 802's new president. People should be helping each other through these rocky moments, not fighting one another. Miss Sills wants this company to get out of its financial and artistic doldrums and regain its impetus as an alternative to the Metropolitan Opera and as a showcase for young American talent.
The spector of a failed institution, which was becoming quite real these past few weeks, may have been what made the players ratify the contract on a narrow margin. Whatever the reason, both sides must now see to it that cordiality and respect dominate their dealings one with the other to the benefit of the public which all serve.