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Is it possible to *produce* classical music?

Classical music just needs to be recorded, doesn't it? Well in some cases it really can be produced.


There are a number of ways to define 'production', but normally we think of it as a creative process in the recording studio. So a band that performs well live can be supervised by a producer to create a great sound for CD or download. Or a producer can build up a track from scratch using singers, musicians and his or her own instrumental skills.

But classical music? In what way can a classical performance really be produced in the studio? Isn't it just a matter of capturing an orchestra's sound? Wouldn't it just be down to good engineering rather than production?

Well there is a role for someone calling themself a producer in classical music recording. The role involves making sure all of the music is recorded (yes, this is really important), making sure that all of the right notes are played, encouraging the performers to achieve the best possible standards, making sure the engineers capture a sound that is appropriate for the music. The list can continue...

But as you can see, there isn't much room for actually being adventurous, as a producer working in modern musical styles can.

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But I've found an exception. Take a listen to this recording. It's The Skaters' Waltz by Emile Waldteufel, written in 1882. Trust me, you'll know it...

Skaters' Waltz - Example 1.m4a

Well that sounds good, doesn't it? Nice tune, well played, passably recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Alfred Scholz (who has his own rather strange tale to tell, but I'll leave that for later).

What you will hear in this version are the notes written down by Waldteufel, played verbatim by the orchestra, recorded as faithfully as possible by the engineers. Oh, and the producer made sure the whole of the piece was recorded. Well actually he didn't - this is an abridged version of the full piece that lasts eight minutes or so.

So what would happen if a real producer was hired? Well, it could sound like this...

Skaters' Waltz - Example 2.m4a

Wow, that's different. Really different. It's different in both arrangement and in the sound of the recording. It's produced!

The difference is that The Skaters' Waltz is presented here as a piece of light music (or 'easy listening' if you prefer) rather than classical music, so the rules can be bent and broken if desired.

The conductor here is the mononymous Mantovani (whose full name of Annunzio Paolo Mantovani probably wouldn't have gotten him very far in his adopted homeland of the UK) with his Mantovani Orchestra.

What's different about the arrangement is the use of 'cascading strings' (sometimes called 'tumbling strings') which requires multiple divisi parts in the violins. It was developed by light music composer Ronald Binge and, with Binge working as an arranger, became Mantovani's trade mark.

But there is more to the production of this recording. The sound is also quite different to how an orchestra would be heard in the concert hall. It is a very bright, upfront sound, and the violins have a wonderful 'bite', jumping out of the speakers and engaging the ear.

I would guess that this recording would have been made back in the 1950s. It sounds like it was recorded in mono, then artificially processed into stereo at some later date. Where the microphones of the period didn't have the accuracy to capture orchestral instruments exactly as they should sound, the producer has leapt upon the opportunity to use the brightness and comb-and-tissue-paper effect as a sonic device in its own right. Doubtless the engineers wanted to try and tone it down a bit, but it's perfect exactly as it is, even for listening today.

Listen at 1:20 how Mantovani, as conductor, is playing with the reverb, waiting for the high-note flourishes to fill the room before moving on with the rhythm. And listen at 2:29 where it's not only the violins that cascade; the cellos are tumbling too.

What composer Waldteufel might have made of this is anyone's guess; he was long dead by the time this recording was made. My feeling is that he would have taken inspiration and written some cascading string arrangements of his own!

Both of these recordings are of course available to buy from all the usual places.

By the way... Did you notice that the channels are reversed in the first audio example? That's exactly the way I found it. Oh well, engineers make mistakes from time to time...

By David Mellor Thursday May 23, 2013