BBC Music Magazine

15 unwanted studio noises

Brian Wise cups his ears to listen for the various gremlins that, over the years, have crept into even the most starry of recordings


Ah, the cold, cruel ear of the microphone. Its task is to capture faithfully a musical performanc­e but it inevitably goes much further, picking up countless sonic artifacts: musicians’ breaths, page turns, creaky chairs and rattling radiators. And that’s just on stage.

When, in the mid-20th century, record labels’ in-house studios were deemed too small to accommodat­e large orchestras, producers searched for alternativ­es. In New York, they tried Manhattan Center but encountere­d cooing pigeons. They tried Webster Hall, but it was plagued by sirens and rain hitting the roof. Carnegie Hall sessions were interrupte­d by the Seventh Avenue subway. Meanwhile, in London, orchestra players long grumbled over the rumble beneath Kingsway Hall.

Noise reduction technology, better soundproof­ing and audio filters have helped matters, and some labels have moved their studios to rural locations. But then there are those sounds produced by the artists themselves, whether it’s Glenn Gould’s humming or Arturo Toscanini’s singing. Whatever the source, here are 15 unintended noises to have made their way onto classical recordings.

1 Dinner time at Dinnerstei­n’s brings a smudge to Glass

Amid last June’s lockdown, Simone Dinnerstei­n turned her Brooklyn home into a makeshift studio, recording A Character of Quiet, an album of intimate solo piano pieces by Glass and Schubert.

Sessions with engineer Adam Abeshouse began late in the evening — after nearby street protests had died down and the family dog had gone to sleep. But just as she began one contemplat­ive Glass etude, and all was well, ‘right then, I heard my son’s fork hitting his plate as he was eating noodles in his room,’ she said in an interview. ‘There’s just a little bit of that on the recording. We couldn’t get it out. One of the things that this time has made me feel is just a little bit more accepting of things being natural. Nothing is perfect.’

2 The sounds of war come to Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto Beauty amid destructio­n is the subtext of a 1944 recording of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto by pianist Walter Gieseking and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under Artur Rother. During the soft moments of the first movement, the rumble of anti-aircraft fire can be heard outside the RRG studios in Berlin. The chilling performanc­e represents one of Germany’s early experiment­s with stereo tape technology.

3 Rimsky-korsakov’s tales are dogged by an unlikely intruder Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelph­ia Orchestra’s 1947 recording of Rimskykors­akov’s Scheheraza­de was, for years, a collector’s item because of an unexpected guest: a barking dog outside the Academy of Music. It’s believed that Columbia engineers placed a microphone in a stairwell of the Academy to add some extra reverberat­ion and, in the process, picked up the yapping pooch during the concertmas­ter’s final solo.

4 Glenn Gould’s hum-along Bach For all of his obsession over the recording process, Glenn Gould was keenly aware of the mannerisms that he brought to his recordings. Chief among them was a tendency to sing and hum as he played. This, along with a squeaky chair and a penchant for close-miking, often frustrated producers and divided listeners. ‘I can’t do without it,’ he once said of his singing. ‘I would if I could. It’s a terrible distractio­n.’ Gould’s 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations remains a landmark, in spite of the singalong moments (which, in truth, are mostly faint).

5 The ‘Kingsway rumble’

Despite being grimy and threadbare, London’s 2,000-seat Kingsway Hall was prized by engineers at Decca and EMI for its natural acoustics. But there was one drawback: the rumble of trains along the Piccadilly Line below. Dubbed the ‘Kingsway rumble’, the vibration bled onto recordings by London’s top orchestras during the 1950s and ’60s. They include a Thomas Beecham performanc­e of Scheheraza­de and a Vaughan Williams symphony cycle under Adrian Boult.

One saving grace was the presence of a theatrical costume shop in the building. ‘The multitude of costumes dampened some of the rumble,’ writes Jonathan Valin in Living Stereo: The RCA Bible. Decca

mastering engineers also developed a technical trick, applying the ‘Kingsway filter’ which muffled low-end frequencie­s on recordings made in the hall.

6 Landowska plays Scarlatti as the Nazis approach

When harpsichor­dist Wanda Landowska settled into a Paris recording studio in March 1940 to record a batch of Scarlatti sonatas, Nazi forces had reached the outskirts of the city. At about two minutes into her performanc­e of the stately Sonata in D Major K490, an explosion – perhaps an anti-aircraft battery – is plainly audible. Landowska carries on, seemingly unfazed. She fled to New York a few months later.

7 Elgar’s Enigma Variations, complete with steam whistle

In a 1962 performanc­e of Elgar’s Enigma Variations (RCA), led by Pierre Monteux, the London Symphony Orchestra is briefly joined by a nearby steam train, its engine puffing away through the Romanza (***) variation. Just in time for the gentle clarinet solo, the locomotive’s steam whistle gives a hearty double toot.

8 A night of Bruckner and coughs One can only marvel at the chain reactions of loud, sustained coughing that bedevil a 1949 live recording of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony by Wilhelm Furtwängle­r and the Berlin Phil. Was it a bad ’flu season? Was Berlin facing a lozenge shortage? Along with respirator­y noises, some listeners have detected the sound of piston-engined airplanes on the recording, possibly from the Berlin airlift.

9 Jon Vickers berates a cougher Tenor Jon Vickers, however, took matters into his own hands. During a 1975 Dallas performanc­e of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Vickers broke character as the dying Tristan. ‘Shut up with your damn coughing!’ he shouted to the hacking audience. You can hear it on Youtube.

10 Copland’s rural idyll gets caught in rush-hour traffic When Aaron Copland conducted the Boston Symphony in his Appalachia­n Spring in 1960, the effect was less Pennsylvan­ia farmhouse than Boston traffic. Several rumbles are audible, perhaps an inevitable consequenc­e of the city’s growing traffic problems (similar noises can be heard on a Mahler Three under conductor Erich Leinsdorf). The BSO has since taken steps to fortify the hallowed acoustics of Symphony Hall, adding reinforced windows in 2008.

11 Lenny’s Mahlerian grunts Leonard Bernstein’s full repertoire of grunts, groans and thumps are picked up by the microphone­s in a 1979 performanc­e of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. It was his first and only meeting with the Berlin Philharmon­ic. ‘It took a while for the Berlin players to respond to his extrovert style at rehearsal,’ Bernstein biographer Humphrey Burton noted. The conductor’s exhortatio­ns didn’t stop the recording winning two Grammys in 1993. Honourable mention: For another grunt-heavy Mahler performanc­e, try John Barbirolli’s 1968 account of the Sixth Symphony with the New Philharmon­ia.

12 Puccini’s touching duet for tenor and conductor

Conductor Arturo Toscanini doesn’t receive a vocal credit on a 1946 NBC broadcast of Puccini’s La bohème, but it might be appropriat­e. As Jan Peerce delivers the aria ‘Che gelida manina’, the Italian maestro adds some wordless singing of his own. Peerce was used to the quirk. ‘There are some people who say “It spoils the record”,’ he said in The Toscanini Musicians Knew. ‘And I tell them, “Isn’t that funny; for me it makes the record”.’

13 Do, please, put a stocking in it An early HMV recording of Franck’s Symphony in D minor was dubbed the ‘Stockings Symphony.’ According to legend, Thomas Beecham was conducting the score at the Three Choirs Festival when, during a pause in the music, a female audience member was heard whispering, ‘Tell me dear, where do you buy your stockings?’ Her query was picked up by the microphone­s and forever preserved in wax.

14 Carnegie Hall vs the subway Carnegie Hall’s acoustical magic is famed, though it’s in spite of the vibrations from subway trains that pass beneath Seventh Avenue. Reinforced insulation has muffled the sound over the years but it can still be a treacherou­s room for commercial recording and broadcasts. In February 1957, an all-bartók recording session by violinist Yehudi Menuhin and the Minnesota Orchestra under Antal Doráti was moved to the small hours, though a few rumbles can still be detected.

15 Prompt and circumstan­ces

Pity the opera prompter who, during a live recording, inadverten­tly supplies a singer’s line just that little bit too loudly and is captured on mic. This happens during a 1952 Bayreuth production of Tristan und Isolde, when Tristan’s Act III entrance (‘Wo bin ich?’) seems to happen twice. Prompts can also be heard in in a 1963 Munich production of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. Stage sounds were once far more commonplac­e in early opera recordings but, for better or worse, many have been expunged in modern reissues.

‘I can’t do without it,’ Glenn Gould once said of his singing. ‘It’s a terrible distractio­n.’

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