Notes from a pianist: The pianist as recording editor and producer

The majority of commercial recordings of classical pianists today are the product of the modern studio and its processes. This involves not only the pianist, but recording editors and producers who will often be deeply involved in the artistic decisions that are integral to recording. The pianist may or may not have the final say as to which takes are used, and will have limited input into issues such as microphone placement and the technical acceptability of particular takes. These are much more likely to be decisions taken on the basis of standard studio practice and the expectations of the recording industry than on the basis of artistic judgement alone.

Let us take a step back, however. Should the point of recording a solo pianist not be to capture the experience of their playing in as natural and unforced a manner as possible, as if he or she were in the room with us? How often does the commercial recording process succeed in capturing intimacy, or a sense of spontaneity? Why do old recordings seem to achieve these things far more successfully than modern ones?

The unfortunate fact is that far too many commercial piano recordings sound exactly the same; they share a standard approach to recording the piano and an interpretative approach that rarely creates any sense of surprise or of an unfolding musical experience born of head and heart rather than of industry expectations.

The first pianist that I am aware of who made extensive private recordings was the late Gunnar Johansen (1906-91), a Danish pianist who settled in the USA. Johansen taught himself how to edit tape, and as a result produced a remarkable and extensive series of LP and cassette recordings (including the collected works of Liszt, Busoni and Ignaz Friedman) for his own recording label, Artist Direct Recordings. Initially, he made recordings in his living room at home, and later built a home studio. Andres Segovia said of this, “Oh, I so wish I had a place like this! I sit there in the professional recording studios, play a work perfectly … and then they tell me, ‘We heard your chair creak at one point,” or” your shoe hit the floor” …  and we have to do it over again!’”

Segovia’s point is well-made. Johansen’s recordings do not sound like the clinical products of the studio, but create a very powerful sense of direct presence, as if he is playing directly for you. There are occasional noises off, and not every edit is imperceptible, but the result is honest, real, and a genuine musical experience of the playing of a master pianist. When artists such as Celibidache disdained the recording process as being unable to capture the essence of music-making, they might have paused at Johansen’s achievement.

Glenn Gould, too, foresaw a point where the pianist would also take charge of the studio side of recording. The key to doing so is that there is a unified vision behind the recording in question. No more is there the risk of clash between recording producer, sound engineer and pianist; no more the risk that the finished product might in fact be so far from the pianist’s own interpretation that it was unrecognizable to them. And there would, in all likelihood, be much less of the assembly of a collage-like performance from multiple unrelated takes. On a visit to a major studio, an acquaintance was told that they were also working on a recording of Beethoven’s last piano sonata by an extremely prominent pianist who is rightly esteemed to be among the greatest living today. The studio was littered with what appeared to be hundreds of labelled tape fragments taken from days of sessions. From this would eventually be constructed twenty-five minutes of recorded music that was subsequently released to enduring critical acclaim. Great recording it may have been, but it was the product of the studio and not of anything resembling live performance.

Having now edited many of my own recordings, I would maintain that the editing process involves important artistic choices that are integral to the interpretative process. They are choices that I would now be reluctant to concede to others, however expert they might be (and I certainly make no claims for my own technical expertise as a sound engineer). There are many electronic tricks that could be used to make a recorded performance appear to be something it is not, from the addition of acoustic effects that could make it sound as if it were in a large concert hall, to more subtle but insidious sonic alterations that would probably be imperceptible to most, but would produce a final product that would sound more like the output of a modern studio. My preference is to disdain them all.

There are times when my recordings are affected by factors such as the physical noise of the instrument (keys or pedals); the occasional sound of my children and cats playing (or arguing) in the background; the odd bumpy edit; or my piano not being perfectly in tune (though its colour and character more than compensate for any such deficiency in my view). But these are real performances, by a real pianist passionate about the music, and they aim at an artistic integrity that brings them into line with the experience of hearing the work played in a natural, intimate setting similar to that envisioned by the composers in question.

Likewise, each work is wherever possible recorded in a single session and a single microphone is used (because we as listeners only hear music from a single location in live performance). The recordings use the widest dynamic range possible, meaning that they will often benefit from playback at a slightly louder volume than is usual. And I hope that they succeed in capturing that indefinable quality that drew me to the music in the first place and that makes me want to share it with others; an emotional richness and warmth that creates intimacy and the human touch.