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.

Notes from a pianist: Pedalling with the ear

The use of the piano’s sustaining pedal is a vast subject, and in this brief article I wish to mention only a few salient aspects.

It has become fashionable for pianists today to play with very little use of the sustaining pedal and for the prevailing critical taste to praise performances that are predominantly dry and clear in texture as well as fast in tempo. This is in keeping with a modernist sensibility. However, there is an alternative approach to the use of the pedal that is Romantic in origin and spirit.

The editions of Bach and Mozart prepared by leading pianists and musicologists of the Romantic era, typically in the nineteenth-century, are generally shunned by modern pianists who assume that the understanding of such editors as Czerny and Liszt is defective in comparison to their own modernist conceptions of authenticity in the performance of music of the pre-1825 period. Such editions usually include recommendations for pedalling, despite the fact that the modern sustaining pedal (and indeed the modern piano) was not available to the composers in question. Because this is at first sight “inauthentic” a stylistic orthodoxy has therefore developed in which historically-informed performance practice essentially treats the prevailing performing traditions of the nineteenth-century, notably pedalling, as taboo and replaces them with their own concept of what early music should sound like. This aesthetic has since come to encompass much Romantic music as well.

Yet there is another way to see these matters.

In Beethoven, we have the benefit of a number of fortepianos surviving today that represent the traditions of piano-making that Beethoven himself was on record as praising, and also excellent modern copies of the same. Playing and listening to these is often a surprising experience, not least because their sound-world is the opposite of the dryness that now characterizes much Beethoven on the modern piano. Although outside the scope of this article, similar observations might be made of clavichords of Bach’s era, which often resonate very expressively in the right acoustic.

There is a tremendous and extremely attractive resonance built into the Beethoven-era fortepiano. We hear all manner of sympathetic vibrations and related sounds when a chord is played, creating a wider harmonic context. Moreover, Beethoven invites us directly to use and experience that resonance as part of the sound-world of his piano music. The first movement of the famous “Moonlight” Sonata (op. 27 no. 2) contains the direction “Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordino” (“This whole piece ought to be played with the utmost delicacy and without damper[s]”). This means that the sustaining pedal is to be depressed at the inception of the movement and lifted at its end. This is not a new effect; we find C.P.E. Bach in 1762 advocating a similar use of the undamped effect when playing in an improvisatory and fantasia-like style. Beethoven’s sonata is of course headed “quasi una fantasia”.

It is perhaps testament to the modernism to which I referred earlier that in a search of the many performances of this movement on YouTube it was frequently the case that even those who used fortepianos disregarded Beethoven’s instructions and changed the pedal with the changing harmonies. In the performance of Dmitry Ablogin, however, we can hear rather more of Beethoven’s actual conception:

Schindler, Beethoven’s biographer, tells us that by the 1850s this effect was no longer possible due to the greater volume of the pianos being produced at this time. Most pianists since have agreed with him. And yet, this is surely a challenge to the imagination and technical control of the performer. More modern pianos can be played just as quietly as a fortepiano, and indeed more tonal control is possible in instruments of particularly fine quality. Sustaining pedals on fine instruments are also capable of subtle half-pedalling rather than binary on-off operation. In achieving these effects, it will be obvious that excessive speed is to be avoided if the result is not to be an ugly clash of harmonies.

The control of tonal gradation, speed and expression by the performer can therefore bring about an expressive interpretation of this work on a modern piano, albeit one that may be shocking in its effect. The result may well be a challenge to modern ears, but it will be one that seeks to capture the essence of Beethoven’s imaginative world rather than bowdlerise it for contemporary taste. And it can be applied to much else in Beethoven’s piano works, from the recitatives in the first movement of op. 31 no. 2 to the arioso of op. 110.

In Schubert, too, we can see this resonance at work in the marvellous reading of his last piano sonata by Tobias Koch, who plays an exceptionally sonorous fortepiano by Conrad Graf. Koch takes the first movement at a true molto moderato, unlike many modern pianists, and this expansive tempo allows every expressive nuance to make itself felt, including a much deeper and richer sonority than we usually hear. Is something similar possible on the modern piano? Certainly so.

Such was Romantic taste for resonance that the piano maker Blüthner developed an aliquot system whereby an extra set of strings was provided in the treble that were not struck but instead vibrated sympathetically with the others, producing an expressive silvery haze. I have loved these instruments since I first discovered them many years ago and they provide in many respects an ideal sonority for Romantic repertoire.

For the modern audience, Romantic pedalling is unexpected and often perplexing. Time and again, reviews criticise certain artists for “overpedalling” when in fact the use of the pedal is entirely deliberate as part of their interpretative concept and is authentic within the context of their pianistic tradition. The late John Ogdon, for example, made copious use of the sustaining pedal in Romantic repertoire, drawing on the legacy of such pianistic giants as Busoni and Anton Rubinstein to produce a full-blooded, passionate pianism that could often be colossal in its effect.

Another such artist is Stephen Kovacevich, who often seems to have an orchestral imagination in such composers as Beethoven and Brahms, and uses the sustaining pedal to great expressive effect. His playing is never dry. Indeed, in an interview, he has offered a view that sums up the parsimonious taste of contemporary modernism,

“What do you mean by P[olitically]C[orrect] in a musical context?
Fast, mean, spare

According to authentic perspective?
Yes. Maybe also PC in a deeper, cultural sense as well, who knows? Political correctness is something that enrages me.”
(https://theartsdesk.com/classical-music/theartsdesk-qa-pianist-stephen-kovacevich)

There is nothing politically correct about Romanticism. It calls forth an individual response that, if it is to be spiritually authentic, must be an entirely sincere and committed reflection of the interpreter’s identification with the work in question. It may be too much for a shallow, sound-bite world. The Romantic pianist sees the pedal as an extension of the fingers; a vital expressive dimension to building an edifice in sound.