Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough

Writings

Recording Rachmaninov

“Stephen, how about recording all of the Rachmaninov concertos?”
“Great!”
“In Dallas?”
“Great!”
“In ‘live’ performances?”
“Great!”
“In one, three-week period?”
“WHAT!
I need to think about this”.
But my manager caught me on a clear, sunny day when I’d slept well. I phoned back fifteen minutes later and said “Yes, let’s do it!”

It was over two years from the time of that discussion to the recording itself and on days when I hadn’t slept well, or it wasn’t clear and sunny, many questions would haunt me: How would I have all the pieces ready at the same time? Would I play too inaccurately because of nerves? Would I play over-carefully because of nerves? Would I play both inaccurately and over-carefully? How could I achieve a sense of freedom and abandon with microphones pointing inside the piano and throughout the orchestra like so many shotgun barrels? How could I have the necessary romantic spontaneity when I knew that every musical breath would be frozen on to the face of a compact disc, clenched in the teeth of its jewel-case?

I had played all of the Rachmaninov concertos before and had always wanted to record them, as much as anything else in the repertoire. As I digested the idea of a ‘live’ recording I became more and more excited and enthusiastic, despite the practical worries. These pieces are ‘live’ works written for a ‘live’ audience, the pianist’s final bars of clapping, interlocking chords demanding applause, the songful melodies lodging as a lump in every throat.

As the contract was drawn up it was decided to record the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini on a separate occasion, after a concert and in the same hall but in a studio session. This was done ten months before the main three-week period and it turned out to be a good way to get into the swing of things. I was able to try the resident New York Steinway piano which turned out to be perfect for the repertoire. I could sample the astonishing Presidential Suite at the Adam’s Mark hotel close by, noting that it had a baby grand piano in its over-sized living room. I could hear how the piano and orchestra sounded on tape, meet the wonderful recording engineer, Jeff, see where the control room was situated, see where the coffee machine was situated … generally have a clear picture in my mind to carry around over the following months as the demanding three-week period drew near.

Over and above these thoughts was my delight at being able to work with the miraculous producer, Andrew Keener, and to create these performances with Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. I knew Rachmaninov’s own recordings of these pieces long before I’d heard anyone else play them, and I was genuinely puzzled when I heard some modern recordings later on as an older child. Where was the characteristic rubato of the composer’s playing? Where were the flexible, fluent tempos, always pushing forward with ardour? And what about the portamento slides in the strings? Correct performance practice does not just apply to Classical and Baroque styles, and I wanted the music to sound authentic. With Andrew I found a conductor who felt exactly the same and had spent years in Dallas addressing these issues with the support of the wonderful concertmaster, Emmanuel Borok – a violinist whose understanding of romantic style went from his bow and fingerboard deep into the entire string section. I was utterly thrilled with the sound which surrounded me on stage during the first week of concerts.

But the recording began badly. My first evening in Dallas was spent with some of the major donors – I was to talk to them on-stage about how I choose a piano for a recording and to demonstrate the DSO’s two Steinways, a Hamburg and an American. I knew the latter from recording the Rhapsody the year before and so I sat down to show the audience what I liked about its power and fabulously moldable cantabile sound --- except that now it sounded terrible. It had become soggy, dull and uneven. I began to panic. The Hamburg piano was beautiful, but too classical in touch and nuance for Rachmaninov and there was no time to find another instrument before the rehearsal the following afternoon. I got on the phone immediately to the piano technician, James Williams, to alert him and it turned out he had not seen the piano for two months. I was furious but took a deep breath and trusted the success of the whole recording into his skillful hands. After eight hours of work the instrument was coming back to life and by the second rehearsal it sounded like the piano I had loved before.

The first week was four performances of the 2nd concerto with an 80 minute patch session just half an hour after the final concert; the second week was the 1st and 4th concertos in three performances with a slightly longer patch session on a separate day; and the final week was the same as week one but with the 3rd concerto. We would convene the mornings following the concerts and listen to the tape, noting things we liked and didn’t like from the performances. Four concerts sounds like a lot of time to ‘get it right’, but when you add mobile phones, beepers, raucous coughs, a thunder storm with lightning clicking all over the tape, noisy page turns, a snoring audience member, and the inevitable wrong notes and ensemble issues it doesn’t seem that much. And the patch sessions, rigorously controlled by union rules of starting, finishing and taking breaks, seem desperately short – good only for emergency repairs, like a nurse on a battlefield tending only to the most serious wounds from a small bag of depleted supplies. Oh, and did I mention the fire alarm …?

The recording almost ended badly too. When I first arrived and met with Andrew he told me that the 3rd concerto would be the easiest of the four to put together as they had played it dozens of times and knew it very well. In fact it turned out to be the most problematic as we had very different ideas about certain musical issues and held those ideas strongly. Swords clashed and sparks flew, but, in retrospect, I think this was good because a lot of energy was generated for this most energetic of pieces. And we remained the best of friends throughout, helped, of course, by succulent Texas steaks and some fine red wine from the State where Rachmaninov chose to make his final home.

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