Wednesday, July 28, 2010

An Ideal "Marriage"

By Mary Ellyn Hutton
Jul 18, 2010 - 12:10:43 AM
Photos by Mary Ellyn Hutton and Jean-Marie Geijsen.

A Slinky and a spray of forsythia sat on the podium when Paavo Järvi arrived in the Grossen Sendesaal (“large broadcasting hall”) at the Funkhaus Nalepastrasse in Berlin April 9.

(Funkhaus Nalepastrassee in Berlin)

What else, since he and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen were about to begin three days there recording Schumann’s Symphony No. 1, the “Spring?” Recording producer Philip Traugott got a warm welcome too, with a chocolate bunny from the horn section -- a traditional offering "so I will be nice to them," he said -- and bottle of wine from a couple in the orchestra who share his interest in fine wine.

The Kammerphilharmonie, Järvi and Traugott are a special team, perhaps unique in today’s classical recording world. A self-governing orchestra, a brilliant conductor and a gifted producer bent on no less than perfection add up to a fertile union.

(Front, left to right: Philip Traugott, Paavo Järvi and engineer Dirk Fischer with members of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen in control room at the Funkhaus Nalepastrasse in Berlin)

Järvi and Traugott are old friends, having met at a Conductors Guild workshop in Morgantown, West Virginia in 1987, when both were students. Though they did not record together until 2004, when Traugott produced Beethoven’s Piano Concertos No. 3 and 5 with pianist Ikuyo Nakamichi and the DKB, they share mutual trust and admiration as musicians, ensuring an optimal working relationship.

“Just tell me what to do, as usual,” said Järvi, following a one-hour break for dinner the first afternoon. He and the orchestra worked in the bright, elegant Sendesaal, a space famed for its acoustics. Traugott and Polyhymnia engineers Jean-Marie Geijsen and Dirk Fischer labored out of sight of the orchestra in a run-down, makeshift control room. Traugott communicated with them via headphones (also by cell phone with Järvi). With no window looking into the recording hall, they could only view the scene on a pair of small television monitors.

Järvi cedes the guidance of the sessions to Traugott, whose job is to prime the orchestra with small rehearsals, then step aside and let Järvi and the orchestra make music again.

“Give us some charm and magic” and “Let’s go back and make some music” were typical instructions after Traugott had taken them through the many takes needed to yield the clarity and precision for which their recordings have become known. His responses to their work were often effusive: “Very great things there.” “Bravi tutti.” “Absolutely gorgeous.” He gave them lots of encouragement, too, like “Yes, you can. That’s personally from Obama himself.” And he spoke with the utmost tact: “[Bassoonist X] is making a beautiful sound on his A, but there is too much of it.”

[Järvi's chair and podium in the Funkhaus recording hall (note "spring" on the podium, flowers in the background) ]

In the Introduction to the first movement of the symphony, horns and trumpets make an “official announcement of Spring," answered immediately by the full orchestra. To create the effect of something coming from far away, Järvi asked the horns and trumpets to play from the back of the hall and to play less forte (loud) in order to create an even greater dynamic contrast when the full orchestra comes in fortissimo three bars later. Takes were made of this “lontano” (distant) version and also of the brasses playing from their seats within the orchestra. During a post-session pow-wow in the control room, each take was played back and Järvi chose the “lontano” version.

“Already in the very opening gestures of the Symphony, Paavo has created a special moment,” Traugott said afterward. “Purists may not agree, but these pieces have been recorded many, many times and he wants to put his own stamp on it so there’s a real narrative, a story in a sense, going on in the background.”

The slow movement (Larghetto), a love song for Schumann’s wife Clara, got heartfelt treatment by Järvi and the players, who sang the opening bars to practice the emotion of the music. When the actual take was made, the control room collectively sighed. “It’s very hard to read a score with tears in your eyes,” said Traugott.

[Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and Paavo Järvi in the "Grossen Sendesaal" at the Funkhaus Nalepastrasse in Berlin (photo by Jean-Marie Geijsen)]

To swing or not to swing? That was the question during Trio I of the third movement (Scherzo). A Kammerphilharmonie wind player demonstrated the former during a break in the control room. “Let’s do it,” Järvi said.

There was painstaking work on the trombone passage that connects the second and third movements (12 bars, 13 takes). This, too, yielded positive results and drew foot-shuffling “applause” from the orchestra.

The session was not without humor. “You and Elke can do it as much as you like,” said Traugott of a dramatic moment in the finale where the horns introduced a cadenza by the flute. “More rustic,” added Järvi.

After the final session on Sunday, the production crew met with Järvi and the players in the recording studio and hugs and kisses were exchanged all around. Then it was back to Bremen for the orchestra and to parts beyond for Traugott and Järvi, knowing that at least the first part of their work had been done.

(from left: Philip Traugott, Jean-Marie Geijsen and Dirk Fischer in control room)

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