A reader emailed me about one of Joyce DiDonato's recent blog posts in which Joyce explains the lengthy work that goes into making a recording:
"What results in 7 minutes of music on a disc likely takes 90 minutes of full-on singing to complete the picture. Normally we will invest in one full take of the piece, listen to the results (debating tempi, colors, ensemble, dynamics, etc), and then the real work begins, usually attacking one segment at a time, involving numerous repeats until the ideal result of musical perfection and high emotional impact show themselves in perfect unison".
The reader's email goes on to say:
"I was probably naive but I did not until recently understand that most singers' CDs are "doctored" several times until the desired degree of perfection is obtained. Arias are repeated, or at least parts of them, many times and then spliced together to produce an artificially perfect result. I had thought what you heard was more or less the same as one would hear in a concert performance, but that is not the case. It might be useful (unless I am unique in my naivete) to alert your readers to the fact that CD performances do not reflect the "real" performer as he or she would sound live".
That sounds like a good idea - consider yourselves alerted.
In case you're not aware, what Joyce describes (and I do urge you to read her whole post - it's a fascinating insight into the recording process) is by no means unique to her, or even to singers generally. Piano and other recordings are often enhanced too. Classical music's generally low sales make extensive re-recording and editing uneconomical, especially where orchestras are involved, but even so nearly all musical recordings - even 'live' ones - are touched up in one way or another.
Is this good or bad? Or to put it another way, would you rather listen to a great recording or a truthful one? Joyce DiDonato puts the performers' side across most eloquently (again, do read her whole post):
"We performers are hardly predictable machines. Every single time we sing a role it is different. No matter how proficient we are, we make mistakes. We sing out of tune. We have a low-energy day and the performance somehow falls flat. This is live performance. But for the amount of work that goes into preparing an opera, and knowing that it will be preserved for posterity, and many people will look to it to define the work itself, it is important to present as polished and theatrical version as possible. Making several takes and correcting small passages allows us the luxury of truly creating a cohesive, as-near-ideal-as-possible interpretation".