Creating the ‘definitive’ recording

A guest post by pianist Clare Hammond

 

As a child, I used to curl up on the floor in front of the imposing speakers of my grandfather’s sound system and work my way through his extensive collection of LPs. A lover of the core classical repertoire, he had little beyond Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but these composers were amply represented. While listening to Beethoven symphonies, piano sonatas by Mozart and Haydn’s string quartets, I imbibed a sense that these works were made permanent, somehow concrete, by their incarnation on disc. It seemed that these renditions were ‘definitive’, in a way that I didn’t feel when listening to live music. I hoped that one day, I too would be able to record ‘the’ Moonlight sonata and somehow set my interpretation in stone.

Despite this orthodox musical education, my specialisms now veer somewhat to the side of the mainstream repertoire and I find myself releasing a disc of études by composers from across the globe; two Russians (Sergei Lyapunov and Nikolai Kapustin), a Pole (Karol Szymanowski) and a South Korean (Unsuk Chin). These études represent some of the most innovative, invigorating and imaginative writing for piano and have given me the chance to really delve into what the piano is capable of (and, rather less pleasurably, where my limitations lie!)

I started preparing for this disc many months before the recording sessions. This was partly because the repertoire is extremely difficult technically, and also because this was a very personal project in which I had invested a great deal of emotional and creative energy. I have developed a reputation for playing works that lie at the more elaborate and frenetic end of the musical spectrum, so these études are essentially my ‘core’ repertoire, where I felt most at ease and most stimulated creatively.

I practised the pieces on different pianos, in varying acoustics, and performed them to different audiences, in order to explore the sonic options available to me. I listened to recordings of the études by other pianists, to orchestral repertoire by the composers, and read about their work in order to ‘live’ the pieces and make them my own. I had long abandoned the idea of a ‘definitive’ recording or interpretation, but I thought that I had a clear idea of what I, personally, wanted to achieve. At least, I did before I set foot in the studio…

The first few minutes in front of a microphone soon put a stop to any notions of creating my ‘ideal’ recording, although not in as devastating a way as you might expect. When recording, as in performance, you are suddenly faced with a single instrument which you may not have played before. In my case, at Potton Hall in Suffolk, I had a beautiful Steinway Model D which had been expertly regulated and tuned. However, all pianos have their foibles and if yours doesn’t have the bloom in the higher register that you had set your heart upon, or the percussive timbre that you sought in the bass, you have to find an alternative solution.

I had not anticipated how dramatically altered my physical state would be. I was nervous, though in a different way from live concert performance. We had a finite amount of time (5 days) to record two discs of challenging repertoire, these études and works by Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik. I wasn’t quite sure how far I could push myself, or for how long (8 hours per day before my wrists give up entirely…) as I’d never done anything this demanding before. The awareness of just how much effort both I and the wonderful team at BIS Records had put into assembling the project, and that my performance over the next few days could potentially undermine all of this, added an extra frisson of anxiety.

Fortunately, I was able to collaborate with producer Thore Brinkmann whose calm demeanour and consummate expertise made the whole process far easier and more enjoyable that I could have expected. We spent the first half hour warming up, with me at the piano and Thore at his desk altering the levels of the seven microphones poised some 12 feet off the ground in a semicircle around the piano. When I heard the first ‘playback’, I was astonished at the sound he had captured. It was so different from what I had heard at the piano. There was a clarity and a crystalline quality in some passages which had not been audible at ground level. Thus began my five-day guessing game where I made alterations at the keyboard whose result I could only hear minutes later in playback.

The specific character of one instrument, the resonance of an acoustic, or the choice of one brand of microphone, would seem to place limitations on the ‘ideal’ performance that I had in mind but, of course, in real life the most interesting results often come when you have to be most pragmatic. I started to respond to the situation and to find creative possibilities that I hadn’t previously considered. While I wouldn’t countenance incorporating the heady cry of a randy pheasant into a recording (and there was one point where I thought I would have to chase a number through the undergrowth away from the hall), certain effects were suggested by the depth of the sustaining pedal on the piano and, fancifully enough, by the vibrations of an aeroplane engine that had ruined a previous take.

It takes some time to fully appreciate that a recording is its own medium and most certainly not a convincing simulacrum of a live performance. For a start, there is no audience and the sense of reciprocal communication that you experience onstage is absent. Secondly, certain effects work much better on tape than they do in the hall. Why this should be, I do not know but there were a number of occasions where a take that I thought unusable, because of its vulgarity or my ineptitude, was by far the best in playback. While we tried to keep editing to a minimum, as with almost any recording, ours involved cutting and pasting tracks together to create a performance that never actually existed. Some may complain that ‘authenticity’ is lost but, again, this assumes that the aim of a recording is to recreate an ‘ideal’ performance for posterity. In reality, people listen to recordings very differently from a live performance and demand a greater level of accuracy and precision than a human being is capable of in one take. As a musician, knowing that if the next passage doesn’t go well you can always redo it, without having to jettison the performance up to that point, is enormously liberating. You are able to take risks that you would rarely contemplate in concert and that adds a vitality that is unique to the recording.

Fast forward nine months and I was able to hear the first edit of my Etude CD, around the time that the other disc, Reflections, of the music of Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik was released. This was a sufficiently long time that the pieces sounded ‘fresh’ to me and I was intrigued to hear what my family and friends thought of the recording. I was struck, as I am again now that the disc has been released, by how differently people listen to a piece. The concept of a ‘definitive’ performance is only meaningful if you can find a ‘definitive’ listener and, of course, both are a nonsense. Listeners bring their own experience, preferences and emotions to a recording and respond accordingly. While this might seem frustrating for the musician, it is actually an intriguing process and has certainly opened my ears to elements that I didn’t initially hear when performing in the studio.

If this is my experience as a pianist, how does the composer feel, compelled to translate their ideas into inadequate notation and submit them to the whims of a performer, and that’s before encountering the uncertainties of the recording studio? It’s important to remember that in order to be authentic, any art-form must be to some extent human and imperfect. The loss of control that one experiences, whether performing on stage or recording, can and should become an integral part of the creative experience. Learning to do this is difficult, and I can’t say that I have succeeded, but the process of becoming receptive to uncertainty is an extremely important part of anyone’s musical and artistic development. When I was younger, I felt that I should strive towards an abstract ‘perfection’ in music. The messy reality is far more interesting.

Clare’s new disc, ‘Etude’, has just been released by BIS Records and is available from all major online retailers. 

“unfaltering bravura and conviction”, Gramophone Magazine

“style and substance”, The Observer

“imagination and bravura”, The Sunday Times

Acclaimed as a pianist of “amazing power and panache” (The Telegraph), Clare Hammond is forging a reputation as an advocate of new and unfamiliar repertoire. In 2014, she gave debut performances at 7 festivals across Europe, including the ‘Chopin and his Europe Festival’ in Warsaw, and world premieres of works by 10 composers. Clare has now released two discs with BIS Records; Reflections, of works by Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik, and Etude, with études by Unsuk Chin, Sergei Lyapunov, Nikolai Kapustin and Karol Szymanowski.

More information is available at www.clarehammond.com/etude.html

Debussy updated for the modern age: Unsuk Chin’s Six Piano Etudes – guest post by Daniel Harding

Meet the Artist…….Clare Hammond

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