Originally Posted by Origen
There are performances from the past that are incredible and cannot be bettered. I gave a non-Mahler example in my post, of Casals 1915. Are you just going to skip him because it isn't hi-fi? I'm not. I might very well find a very nice modern substitute, but the substitute is going to be different, not what was the essence of Casals. I'm happy enough with both, but I'd be more likely to neglect the modern recording by even an excellent player over a genius from the past on a relatively primitive recording.
The SACD recording of Mahler 9 conducted by Michael Tilson-Thomas is absolutely gorgeous. I can't imagine a better recording. But the interpretation sucked, so I sold it almost immediately. So what if Horenstein or Levine were not recorded as well. They were recorded well enough, and I can use my mind to flesh out the playback to experience the original vicariously.
Sure, in the best scenario everything would come together. But I maintain that the acoustics are not nearly as important as the interpetation and performance. As long as the recording is, say, C- or better, and the interpretation & performance are A, that's better to me than an A+ recording of any interpretation & performance that are less than A.
Do you play an instrument or have you played in an orchestra? (Not trying to be insulting -- just curious) If you've played with an orchestra, you know that the conductor is in charge of two things: tempo and dynamics. You might have liked the way Walter or Horenstein or Field conducted, but it's not like they had some sort of ability that cannot be replicated. Any conductor, and probably most amateurs, can replicate Walter's performance today if they listened to his recording and copied his tempi and his dynamics; they just choose not to. I believe music evolved, and young conductors today learn more about the music and what tempi work well and don't work well, and which instruments to bring out. There is nothing inherently better about one interpretation over another (I am excluding the really bad ones where the tempi just don't make sense). Sure, you may like the brass section to be a little louder in a certain passage, while Abbado thinks Mahler intended the brass to be in the background in that passage, but these are just subjective decisions; the music itself does not change.
Musicians are also, on the average, better today than they were before. There is intense competitions for top orchestras in the world. When Bud Herseth left his principal trumpet seat with the CSO, hundreds of trumpeters came to audition for that spot (I believe it was around 250 or so). In the 50s, that was not the case.
Information is also a lot more accessible today than it was before, meaning people like Zander (or even Kaplan) can spend months or years studying a Mahler symphony to know it inside and out, something that really was not possible when Kubelik or Horenstein recorded their set. Sure, you could go to the library and check out a book on Mahler, but it's quite a different world today.
So where does that leave us? Conductors who have learned from prior performances, better musicians, incredible sound quality, and more knowledge both about Mahler-the-man and his music. Certainly, classic performance are classic for a reason. They were often the first, or the best at that time, or the only one available at that time. They were often by conductors that premiered the performance in the United States. But I can guarantee you that any conductor and most amateurs can waive their baton as fast or as slow as Bernstein or Horenstein or Abbado or Walter, and any conductor can hold out his left arm to tell the violas to play quieter or the horns to bring a passage out.
Just my opinion, and I also realize that 98% of the people in the classical music circle will disagree with it.