Bobby and Hans- Two Days and Two Symphonies with Orchestra of the Swan, part II

Day two of recording the 3rd Symphonies of Bobby and Hans. Part I here.

We’d decided to maximize the overnight break, hence the early finish on Monday and late start on Tuesday. It gave more time for those musicians who commute to get home for a good meal and sleep, and for everyone to re-charge their batteries (and lips). As it happened, we needed the time in the morning for the weather. Both days trains were cancelled from Birmingham. Apparently, it was the wrong kind of cold weather for trains. Thank heavens our clarinet section had been able to find a taxi in the middle of nowhere after being chucked off their train on Monday.

Tuesday morning we started with Schumann. I’d planned to start with the 4th mvt to get some good work in while the brass were fresh- it’s about the highest and most unforgiving excerpt in the repertoire for principal trombone and horn. However, our bass trombonist was victim of another closed train line, so we started with the 1st mvt instead (in which the trombones don’t play). I’d been really pleased with the technical standard of the Schumann the day before, but felt the first movement needed an extra burst of energy. How much, though? With a 9 hour day ahead, one could easily burn out most of the band in the first half-hour recording of the 1st mvt. Schumann is music in which one not only has to think about the wind players getting burned out, but also the strings- part of the inner fire of his music is expressed in his use of what we call “scrubando” fast, wild semi-tremolo double and quadruple speed bow strokes within melodies. It’s a great sound, but can be a fast track to tendonitis. We chose to record the 1st mvt in particular in shorter chunks, so everyone could give their most without burning out too fast. It’s all well and good to be idealistic about recording in long takes, but not at the expense of players’ health, especially with a concert being recorded too.

The performance of the 1st mvt was a whole different world from rehearsal the day before once the players turned on their imaginary red-lights. However, technically, the Schumann is in some ways harder than Gál- which is saying a lot! It was humbling- here we had just torn though this insanely hard new symphony the day before having to work hard to perfect a piece that community orchestras world-wide hack through all the time.  Music never stops kicking your ass.

Next up, now that our bass trombonist had made his way in, was the famous 4th mvt. I suppose this was the moment I’d dreaded recording the most, as the opening is one of those passages that can dissolve into disaster if one has a nervous or less-than world-class principal horn or trombone player. Having never worked with the OOTS trombone section before (I’d just recorded Mahler 2 weeks ago with David, our principal horn, so was reasonably certain he would nail it), I didn’t know what to expect. I needn’t have worried- principal trombonist Martha Ann nailed it to the wall with effortless fluidity, and was completely unruffled when we did a 2nd take to cover a few secondary issues. What could have been a long, spooky stress-fest was no big deal, and we could save the bulk of our energy for the emotional heart of the movement.

The morning ended with the Finale of the Schumann- we got some good work done, but slightly ran out of time and energy before getting the final pages down as we wanted them. As the players left for a much, much deserved lunch break, I had a listen to our morning’s work. The technical level of the 1st mvt was really fantastic, but I didn’t feel it was “there” yet. We’d been ripping into it at “just about concert level,” but in Schumann, that’s not enough- he needs “concert level.” There was no more time to return to that movement, either- we had to use the concert to get the heart of the performance we all wanted.

After lunch, we all returned for the last session before the concert. We needed to finish the 1st movement of the Gál, record the 2nd movement complete, finish the Finale of the Schumann and record the 2nd and 3rd movements complete. It was a formidable challenge- based on the speed we had made in the movements recorded so far (fast by any measure) there was a very real possibility that we would run out of time or have to let things slide.

Fortunately, the orchestra, who had already been playing flat out for 12 of the last 20 hours or so, simply upped their game. We finished the recapitulation and coda of the Gál in less than 30 minutes. I’d feared spending that much just on the 8 bar Piu Mosso before the end, which is extremely rhythmically treacherous for the 2nd violins. Fortunately, the 2nd Violin section are extremely good, and led by Simon a very good musician and a fine violinist.  The only time spent on the passage was for balance.

Even with that victory, we still probably needed two more miracles to finish on time. We got the first miracle almost straight away. The 2nd movement of the Gál starts with a delicate but epic oboe solo. Just when we needed it, we got the whole section in one take- no coughs, no noises, no balance issues, just sublime artistry from our oboist Victoria and incredibly sensitive playing from the rest of the band. The more one records, the more suspicious one is of  reports of things being recorded “all in one take,” but in this case, it is the truth. With that opening out of the way, the rest of the movement followed very quickly with the musicians  seemingly in the zone. Suddenly, we’d finished recording Gál’s 3rd Symphony- this extraordinary symphony that has been neglected for 55 years. Time for a coffee!

Or was it…We had to finish the Finale of the Schumann- there were bits from the morning where we could sense some fatigue creeping in, and we needed to sort the coda. The Gál had gone so quickly it was really too soon for a break, so we got the Finale of the Schumann done before getting a much deserved hot drink. As we adjourned, I caught up with David, our principal horn. We still had the 2nd and 3rd mvts of the Schumann to record. The horns had just done a lot of big, hot playing in the session, but the end of the 2nd mvt of the Rhenish is very high and very exposed. Did he want to do it right away, or have a bit of a break on the more laid-back 3rd movement first. His preference was to do the Scherzo (no. 2) first, “while I still have some face left,” so that was the plan. So we did, and the horns were awesome at the end.

One movement left! However, that was the one movement we hadn’t looked at in rehearsal the day before (which seemed like a lifetime ago). The 3rd movement of the Schumann may be less technically demanding than the rest of the two symphonies we were doing, but it is probably the most musically sophisticated. It needs nuance, color, flexibility, rubato, subtlety. There are so many different kinds of dynamic nuance in the score- accents, sforzandos, swells, forte-pianos and more- that one could spend weeks tweaking, explaining and rehearsing. Fortunately, none of that was necessary. Schumann is music that depends on a real rapport between conductor and orchestra. Even though we’d just played our first note of Schumann together the day before, by this point, we were speaking the same language, and the recording of that movement with Orchestra of the Swan was a joy- a real reminder of the possibilities non-verbal communication.

And so we were done- FOUR MINUTES EARLY! I really couldn’t believe it. Those four minutes felt like one of the great professional victories in my life.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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