On the Subject of Applause in Classical Recordings

I recently listened to Stephen Hough and Andrew Litton’s recordings of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos. A spine-tingling performance of these four great works, but which, at the end of each one, was destroyed by loud and buoyant applause, where silence would have been truly golden. These recordings were, of course, recorded live, and it’s hard to keep the audience from coughing or making other noises, but the applause is so disturbing that I won’t be listening to these recordings again. I even tried to edit out the applause, using Fission, but as you can see below, the final reverberation of the orchestra and piano do not fade out before the applause begins. (The red line connected to the play head shows where the two overlap.)

I’ve long hated applause on classical recordings; it bothers me less on live recordings of, say, jazz or rock. This is certainly subjective, but classical recordings seem especially sensitive to the sudden burst of audience frenzy. Many classical works end with a bang – the Rachmaninov concertos certainly don’t fade out – and the silence that follows them is like a blank page at the end of a book. In some cases, there is a gap between the end of the music and the beginning of the overly raucous idolatry, and in such cases, it is simple to edit it out. But in recordings like these, it’s simply not possible; in my opinion, that applause is too jarring to want to listen to them. (My intention here is not to single out this specific recording, but it’s an example of a number of such classical releases.)

It’s not easy to keep an audience quiet. However, it is possible. Just tell them that the work is being recorded, and ask them to wait a few seconds before applauding. A recent video release of András Schiff playing Bach’s French Suites is interesting is the fact that Schiff plays all six suites with no applause following individual works, and the only applause is after he has completed the cycle. This was clearly not something the audience came up with on their own; they were asked to do this.

Another thing to do with classical recordings is somehow make sure that the guy who yells “BRAVO!!!!” at the top of his lungs at the end of every work is not sold a ticket. This guy gets around; he’s on pretty much every recording I know of that has applause, and I’ve attended a good many concerts where he has been in the audience.

Applause has its place. It is a recognition of a wonderful musical experience. People sit in a concert hall for an hour or two, enraptured by music, and want to say “thank you.” But including it on recordings is just unmusical. I won’t listen to such recordings, unless I can remove the applause.

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13 replies
  1. Aaron says:

    I make use of the Player Position to Start or Stop script from Doug’s AppleScripts (http://dougscripts.com/itunes/scripts/ss.php?sp=playposstartstop) to set the stop position to the end of the performance before the applause.

    There are two problems with this that I have found, aside from the one you had where there is no gap between the performance and the applause. First is that you can no longer tell how much more time is left exactly by looking at the time in iTunes, since it’s really a bit less than that. Second, there has been a bug where I would occasionally hear some of the applause anyway. I don’t know if this was a bug in the script or in iTunes, or even if it still exists (I haven’t encountered it in a while, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone).

    There are also some bugs with the player position start time, but those are unrelated.

    • kirk says:

      You can set start and stop times in iTunes, but in the recordings I mentioned, the music segues directly into the applause.

  2. Fred says:

    Oh Kirk, don’t be such a spoilsport. Surely the appropriateness of applause depends on the piece? You will never, ever hear a Rachmaninov concerto live without delighted cheers at the end – some pieces are just like that. to want to hear it that way is to want an experience on record that is false in and of itself. As it happens, I think Stephen Hough’s recordings are so good that it would just be plain odd NOT to have applause.

    Now, suppose you made your point about, say, Bruckner’s or Mahler’s 9th, that’s altogether different. Applause is indeed an unwelcome interruption on a recording – but then, it is live as well. Applause happens in those circumstances to congratulate the performers, rather than as an instinctive response to the music. In which case, it is useful to have it edited out.

    Just my two penn’orth…

  3. Peter says:

    I would not mind applause at the end of some historic opera recordings, it ads to the excitement and occasion, Callas’ Anna Bolena for example. There is a Jenufa recording from Carnegie Hall that has 15 minutes of applause at the end of act II and 20 minutes after act III, quite bizarre and over the top (though in a strange way quite exciting). I could do without the applause after Matthias Goerne and Alfred Brendel’s live recording of Die Winterreise though, the mood after Der Leiermann is completely destroyed.

  4. Paul Serotsky says:

    Have you tried, or thought of trying, this?

    Locate the points where the music stops (A) and where the applause starts (B), then apply a linear fade-out of the reverberation between (A) and(B); make sure there’s plenty of silent elbow-room following (B); finally, add synthesised reverb (to taste!) from (A) through (B) and on to the very end.

    It’s not perfect, of course, but it will be much less aggravating than either intrusive applause or an abrupt full-stop, and maybe you won’t have to sacrifice your obvious enjoyment.

    • kirk says:

      I’ve tried the fade-out, but for these specific works, it means the decay of the music fades out as well. That sounds better than listening to the applause, but still doesn’t sound great. Granted, it’s just the end, so it’s probably the best solution.

      • Paul Serotsky says:

        Yes – the fade-out ON ITS OWN is bound to do that – that’s why it’s important to do that second step, which is to use synthetic reverb to REBUILD the missing part of reverberant tail.

        OK, so it’s only a simulation, but, being created from the actual sound of the final chord, and if properly applied, it really does sound quite “natural”.

  5. Michael Griffin says:

    There is an amusingly deceitful method which allows an orchestra to keep its audience quiet for a moment or two following the end of a performance. It’s described in a comment following an article entitled “The Bravo Guy,” written by audio engineer Alexandra Gardner. [http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/the-bravo-guy/]

    Paul Muller says:

    I play in the Cal Lutheran Univ orchestra and we did Mahler’s 4th this past April. We rehearsed the last 4 bars of the last movement several times for the specific purpose of discouraging premature applause. The time to start applauding is when the conductor puts his hands down at his sides – and we rehearsed it so that there was no sound or movement for a full 10 seconds after the last note sounded. The conductor hunched down over the podium with his baton half-raised and our instructions were not to even blink! It worked and was very effective. The point was thus made that the most important part of that piece was the silence that follows the last chord.

  6. Peter says:

    My experience with the Bravo Guy: during a recital of Leontyne Price she sang Vissi d’arte from Puccini’s Tosca (not exactly an obscure aria), she did it in her familiar slow way, like she always did at recitals, with lots of ritenutos so every moment you think the piece is over (but of course WE know when it is finished). Just before her last grand frase ‘Perche me ne rimuneri cosi?’ she slowed down again and the the Bravo Guy, who was sitting right in front of me, exploded in a very loud BRAVA!!!!!! and jumped up from his seat, only to be shushed down, even by his friends sitting next to him. Since this was the last number before the intermission, you could hear people laughing and making fun of this unmusical jerk, who was left with a lot of egg on his face. Needless to say, for the rest of the concert, he waited AFTER the applause started. For once, the Bravo Guy was exposed.

  7. Michael Lee says:

    There are a few pieces of music at the end of which I don’t mind loud applause. If a piece ends with a raucous fanfare, or something equally boisterous or obvious, then applause is great.

    However, when the music ends quietly, softly, dissonantly… then applause just kills the ending. For example, take Joseph Schwantner’s “…and the mountains rising nowhere.” It’s a brilliant piece of music (and for those willing to look past its avant-garde qualities, it is, in fact, semi-tonal). However, it’s just not the type of work that you would like to hear applause after; rather, it’s more apt to just sit in reverence.

    Similarly, applause doesn’t belong at the end of a lot of musical theater. For example, the Finale from West Side Story ends in a manner that just doesn’t lead well into applause, with a haunting augmented fourth reverberating through a fairly quiet minor chord. Obviously, in the theater, you’d applaud after the musical is finished… but who wants that at the end of their CD?

  8. Don Hansen says:

    At a Proms concert you know you are usually going to get wild applause at the end of a piece and maybe even before the final chord has ended, and that’s just fine with me. But it can be up to the conductor to hold the audience back when the piece is being recorded for sale later. Here in San Francisco Michael Tilson Thomas always tells the audience that it plays a big part in the recording, that part being to remain quiet throughout.

    There is an ICA DVD of Boult conducting a beautiful performance of Vaughan Williams’s Job. The end is very quiet and Boult holds back the applause for at least 10-15 seconds (I haven’t timed it). This gives you plenty of time to stop the DVD (there is also an Intaglio CD of the same performance) or let it go on. If he hadn’t done so it would have ruined the glow created by the performance.

    To wrap up, applause is fine but warn the audience to hold it back until the conductor drops his hands.

    So I’m

  9. Peter says:

    Another pet hate: people using the moments between the movements of a symphony, concerto, quartet or any other piece in more than one movement, to chat quite loudly, get up and stretch their legs, check their mobile phones, blow their noses VERY loud etc. The first bars of the next movement are always spoiled because it is still not quieted down in the hall in time. The composer meant these pauses for a moment of silence to get ready for the new mood of the next movement. The silences are composed within the piece so to say. Perhaps for the audience to clear their throats DISCRETELY or change position, NOT to socialise like it was an intermission.


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