Session Diaries- Bobby and Hans vol. 3 with Orchestra of the Swan, Monday morning…

Monday, 3 December, 2012

Session 1- 10:00 AM

Scheduled: Schumann- Symphony no. 4, mvts 1 and 2

Recording is like nothing else- getting great material on disc requires a rather unforgiving balance of precision and passion. To get the kind of passion and energy that makes a recorded performance leap out of the speakers, the musicians need to play every take with the kind of intensity and energy that one would hope to achieve in a very inspired concert. To get the kind of precision and attention to detail, one is constantly having to stop and work on all sorts of technical details, fine points of interpretation and questions of style. In a concert you don’t have to repeat things or remember what went wrong to fix it the next time. In a recording you do. Going back and forth between sorting out the detail and playing at maximum intensity in real performance mode takes great skill and vast reserves of energy.

Sir George Solti- one man who knew how to give everything on every take

I’m not sure any composer needs a more exacting balance of detail and passion than Robert Schumann. This morning the Orchestra of the Swan and I are starting to record our third Schumann symphony together. When we recorded our first Schumann in 2010 (the last symphony in E-flat major sometimes erroneously called the “Rhenish”), I think it took some time for the musicians to actually believe that they really had to give as much energy as I was asking them for on every take. Smart orchestral musicians know that a recording session is absolutely useless if your chops give out, so wind and brass players in particular are very careful to pace themselves whenever they can, and later composers are more shrewd at spreading out the workload than Beethoven and Schumann were. The problem with Schumann is that there are very few times when one can back off without the music suffering.  I think we’ve all heard enough tepid Schumann symphonies in our lives- listless, sprawling heatlamp-warmed buffets of mezzo forte overcooked musical vegetables. Blech.

We started the two days with the first movement of the Schumann because it needs the most  raw energy.  In some ways, it needs even more intensity than anything in the E-flat and C major symphonies we’ve already recorded because of the stormy nature of the music.

And of course, even with all our shared experience in Schumann, and a complete lack of skepticism from the musicians, it’s taken the first hour or so to start to get the intensity, the depth of sound, the huge and immediate dynamic contrasts and the rhythmic vitality we need. By this point, I’m  already a sweaty, panting mess. It’s going to be a tiring couple of days. Conducting is not always a dignified business (note how many times you can see Solti’s underwear in the clip above- how much do I love that he doesn’t seem to give a flying f*ck about this?) I’m all for recording in long takes in theory, but with 3 sessions to keep in mind, I decide early on to record and patch in short-to-medium length bursts of maximum intensity. There’s no point in playing on for one bar if the energy level drops. That way, everyone can rest their chops for a moment between takes while we sort out details. Also, we’ll be recording the concert, which will give us the ultimate, high-energy long take. Some whole movements on previous discs have been taken almost complete from the concert, while others are all from the sessions- I challenge anyone to guess which is which. After the break, things start to click in earnest, and the coda, in many ways the most difficult part of the movement, comes together very quickly.

With just fifteen minutes left, it’s not realistic to record the entire second movement even though it is short, but it’s important to make a start on it.  We read it and the solos sound lovely, but the whole thing is a little too Romantic and lugubrious. Schumann modelled this Romanze on a courtly Renaissance dance- he even considered using lute or guitar to accompany the cello/oboe duo. As soon as I ask the orchestra to lighten the second beat of each bar and treat it as dance, the whole thing is transformed. As Simon, our producer, remarked at the break it “instantly changed the architecture of the whole thing.” I’m not sure I’d consider any part of the movement to be “in the can,” but it’s not technically hard and everyone now knows how it goes.

For each of these discs, we have five rehearse/record sessions and a concert. I write the schedule to try to record the outline of everything in the first four sessions, which leaves the last session to rehearse the overture, fix anything that has been giving us problems and tie up loose ends. It’s actually not realistic to get everything done in those first four sessions- I know when I do the schedule that we’ll always run a bit behind, but I do this because you never quite know what might need a night to settle, or what might give me or the players extra trouble. So, it’s fine to run behind schedule as long as you don’t build up more than two and a half hours of work to do in the final session. By the end of this morning, we’ve got the first movement in the can and know what needs doing with the second. Getting it recorded will probably take another thirty minutes, at least, which leaves us two hours of flexible time in the final session tomorrow. That’s pretty good- first sessions are notoriously slow with all orchestras and producers because it takes time for the engineer to find the sound and for the orchestra to get in the grove.  For one project, I think we ended up about an hour and forty-five minutes behind at the end of the first session. That’s when you start to feel tiny shards of glass grinding against the lining of your stomach whenever you look at the clock.

As I leave for lunch, I run into Phil, our wonderful first bassoonist. I thank him for some great work, and he says he’s “just relieved to have the slow introduction behind me. It’s the most strenuous thing in either piece.” I mention this because I think audiences sometimes think it is the fast and loud music that is most difficult or the most exhausting- quite the opposite, and this is one reason this Schumann is so hard. By the time the main part of the movement starts, the winds have already played the most tiring music in the whole symphony.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

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

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *