Vinyl, vidi, vici

Gramophone - Simon Callow is overcome by the romance of recording

There are gigs and gigs. When the Gramophone magazine asked me to compere their awards last year, I instantly agreed, because the magazine has been a part of my life since I was 14, and my enthusiasm for it has only grown with the passing years. Let me freely admit that though not (tell me I'm not) prone to the worst excesses of the classical music anorak, I am deeply addicted to the output of the record industry, and for people with my kind of problem, Gramophone is a kind of combined pusher, therapist and friend.

The great strength of the magazine is that it was founded by a literary man, Sir Compton MacKenzie, and it has always seen its task as providing articulate and elegant writing about music, avoiding technoburble and semiotics alike, and vigorously maintaining standards. There was a dead patch in the 1970s when it seemed to be a conversation held among a number of elderly gentlemen murmuring well-honed phrases into each other's ear trumpets, congratulating themselves as much as those whom they appraised. But a thrustful, contentious new generation appeared, offering, month after month, its informed, passionate response to the music and its performance. Would that there were a comparable theatre or film magazine.

Beyond its commitment to music, however, the magazine represents the romance of recording, something as inexplicable to the unaffected as any other private passion. What is it that impels us to buy 15 different versions of Brahms's Second Symphony, to assemble the complete piano music of Busoni, to track down every golden note ever recorded by Aureliano Pertile? Deep down, it is, I believe, a real love of music, but it would be foolish to pretend that there was no other imperative at work. There's some special kind of compulsive sensuality about the receptacles of the music, the bottles, so to speak, which contain the lovely nectar. I grew up surrounded by my grandmother's shellac discs, hundreds of them, mostly damaged in some way - scratched, or with great chunks bitten out of them. The music I learnt from them was commensurately deformed, but it remains the way I hear it in my mind's ear - the Moonlight Sonata, click, serenely, click, lapping away, all of Solomon's majestic, click, phrasing traduced by the, click, crack from the disc's periphery to its label.

Later came vinyl LPs, glamorous in their coloured, laminated sleeves, but even more prone to rack and ruin, full of static, every slight scratch sending a violent shock through the music system; they were often buckled and bent, putting the piece in question on to a sonic Big Dipper. One was never quite sure whether the record was going at the right speed. But the joy of a pristine LP, and a new needle! The purity of sound, the ambient silence palpable. How one cherished the flawless, shining surface, stroking it with the latest impregnated cloth, littering the turntable with the various Heath Robinson devices attached by suction pads connected to transparent plastic arms, which bore little furry red pads like velvet steamrollers preceded by advance guards of nylon bristles. All this to bring us closer to the holy grail of perfect sound.

There was ffrr, and stereophony, Mercury Living Presence, and Dynagroove, then the spectacular false dawn of quadrophony, littering the house with speakers until they seemed, like Daleks, to be coming at you from all sides. Some fanatics swore by reel-to-reel tapes - on which the music had after all been originally recorded, so surely one was that much closer to aural truth? Then cassette tapes appeared and were briefly marvelled at, neat, free of static, playable in the car - only to be brutally thrust aside by the compact disc. Miraculously clear, indestructible and able to hold at least half as much music again as an LP. And DAT, a little more recherche, but of crystalline clarity. And minidiscs. And now DVD, which has images and sound incomprehensibly all locked into the little tin disc.

Through all this, Gramophone kept a calm clear head, noting the recording industry's desperate resistance to change until it realised that everyone would buy everything all over again in the new medium. Just as the world of live music was discovering authentic performance practices, the companies - thanks to improved methods of transferring old recordings - began to see the value of their back catalogues. So we now, for the first time in history, live simultaneously with the past and present - and not just with the music of the past, as before, but the performance of the past. Except that, in an important sense, we have no present.

We know, or think we know, how pieces were performed originally, and thanks to recording we know how they were performed in the intervening past, as far back, at least, as 100 years ago. But we aren't entirely sure how we want to perform them ourselves. We edge towards a state in which interpretation - that is, the spontaneous reaction of our own age, our own times - no longer exists. The gramophone has robbed us of our innocence. We no longer come to music reacting simply against the way our immediate predecessors performed it. The manifold sins of distortion from the distant past are there before our appalled ears. We are musically correct, striving after an objectivity that can never be. We distrust the contribution of the performer, seeing merit only in the intentions of the composer. We have stripped the varnish off every canvas.

The much-announced demise of that fabulous invalid, the recording industry, will never occur; indeed it has proved a good child of capitalism, reinventing itself in a dozen different ways, and there has never been a moment in history when there has been so much choice, both of repertory and of performer.

But what this ever more vividly realised legacy tells us is that the genius of the performers was in what they themselves had to bring to it, their own experience of life and vision of art. A certain generous arrogance is a precondition of living performance. We need to learn the right lessons of the past, not as a dreadful warning, but as a liberation.

Simon Callow hosted this year's Gramophone magazine awards