Under the microscope

Many, many apologies for the silence over the last two weeks, perhaps inevitably once the recording drew near, our heads went down and we focused entirely on our playing. We are now back at home after an incredible four weeks and we of course want to bring you up to date on the rest of our stay at the Banff Centre, so below are some photos, a video and the full story of the incredible experience we had recording our first album.

To pick up where we left off, on 23 January we had the absolute pleasure of introducing the Canadian public to Philip’s 2nd Sonata. Once again the response was overwhelming and we were left feeling absolutely ready for our recording the following weekend. Here is the video of the performance:

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Unfortunately, immediately after we came off-stage, Louisa started feeling very unwell and had to go to bed for two days to fight off a dreadful flu that was going around. Thankfully she managed to recover sufficiently to be on form for the first day of recording. In the meantime, I had the very important job of meeting with the Banff Centre’s piano technician Albert Picknall. Someone once gave me the very good piece of advice in relation to my own piano that any instrument is only as good as the technician who looks after it. Luckily for us, Bert turned out to be an absolute genius. The Rolston Recital Hall is home to a wonderfully young 9ft Steinway Model D named Yolande (after the benefactor who donated her)! Yolande is absolutely beautiful (the other woman in my life, don’t tell Louisa!) but there were a few issues that I needed Bert to attend to. The dampers were proving a little troublesome, making a strange (meow meow) noise when released slowly and delicately (as often needed in the Elgar), I wanted a little more brilliance from the bass strings and the Una Corda pedal was not quite giving enough change of colour. Bert was very sensitive in listening to both my playing and my opinion, smiling wryly when I mentioned these things (he knew about all of them of course!). Unfortunately for him, immediately after our meeting there was a rehearsal and then an evening concert in the hall, leaving the poor man with no other option than to come in before dawn on the Saturday morning to get the work done before our recording session started at 10am.

Bert tending to beautiful Yolande!

Bert tending to beautiful Yolande!

Day 1 of the recording started with the sound check. Bert had managed to do an incredible job preparing the piano for my arrival, changing everything to my suit my preferences. Jeremy our producer had worked in the hall many times before and had a very clear idea of the best setup. Strangely this meant moving the piano to the centre of the room (where the stalls would usually be) and turning the instrument around to face the stage. Louisa was then put in her usual concert position in relation to the piano (so also facing the wrong way) and we were astonished at how much of a difference this made to the sound of the room. Although we had performed all pieces there in preparation, it now sounded to our ears like a completely different space. After playing through the first movement of the Elgar a few times we went into the booth to have a listen. It took several attempts at repositioning the microphones before we arrived at a sound that we felt reflected both instruments to their very best and the wonderful resonance of the hall. This process took much longer than we were expecting but Jeremy was very relaxed about it all and suggested we have lunch before getting down to business.

Performing under the microscope!

Performing under the microscope!

The recording process turned out to be much more enjoyable than either of us anticipated. It was strangely comforting to play in the knowledge that if it doesn’t quite work out as intended you can always try again! We started with the Elgar for two reasons, it was the longest piece and also the most familiar both to us, Jeremy and any potential critics so very important to get right. We found ourselves really enjoying the challenge of chasing the magic take where both of us, not to mention the sharp-eared Jeremy would feel happy and we would get the rallying call over the tannoy “I think we’re covered, let’s move on”! We made great progress, covering the first two movements of the Elgar by the end of the day, leaving the last movement and first Sawyers for day 2 and the second Sawyers for day 3. Absolutely exhausted we had a quick dinner and went straight home to bed to rest up!

Day 2 began with a bit of a struggle as starting the morning with the last movement of Elgar proved to be a challenge. Usually after the drama of the first movement and the tragedy of the second, the first paragraph in E major is always such a release of tension in concert. This time though there was nothing before it except bacon and bagels and we somehow had to summon up the appropriate mood from nowhere. After a few attempts at running the movement we were back in the zone and we managed to finish the Elgar before lunch, leaving the afternoon clear for the first Sawyers. I should at this point mention five wonderful people that we met at The Banff Centre without whom we would not have made such smooth progress. Kara, Clark, Alastair, Pierre and Matty all gave up valuable practice/work time from their own residencies to come and turn pages for me. It is a thankless task and they all turned in absolute silence with massive enthusiasm and their presence was so wonderfully reassuring. It was actually surprisingly useful to have someone to play to in the otherwise empty hall and as all of them were extremely fine musicians themselves, their presence right next to me at the keyboard really kept me on my toes! Day 2 proved to be the longest as we needed until 6.30pm to cover the first Sawyers in enough detail but we were over half-way and delighted with how things were going.

Inevitably Day 3 saw us hit the wall! Louisa and I often joke that the morning after a concert we are battered and broken from giving it everything on the concert platform the night before. This was something else though, rather than playing for 75 minutes in concert, we had been performing with even more intensity for 7 or 8 hours a day for two days straight. Both of us woke up that Monday morning very, very tired and Louisa had delightfully passed her flu onto me. Somehow we managed to summon up the required energy levels for the first movement of the second Sawyers. It’s a piece that looks relatively straightforward on the page, yet it is unrelenting in rhythmic intensity and we were determined not to let the microphones pick up even a hint of our fatigue. The third day turned out to be a real stamina test and surprisingly it was the slow movement that proved to be the biggest challenge. This was the emotional heart of the work and we were both determined to get it done before lunch. Unfortunately it proved too ambitious and eventually Jeremy called time on proceedings so we could take a long break after going on until after 2pm. By this point I was in need of some pharmaceutical rejuvenation to get my temperature back under control and we were both physically exhausted. Thankfully a decent lunch break did the trick and when we returned later in the afternoon the rest of the slow movement was covered without difficulty. At this point I felt like I had been climbing for days and yet there was still this huge mountain of the last movement to climb. In the end though the unrelenting virtuosic writing seemed to reinvigorate us and the last movement came out much easier than either of us was expecting.

P1020186At 5.32pm on that last day Jeremy said those magic words again “I think we’re covered” except this time it was followed by a round of applause and a prologued “yyyyyaaaaaaaayyyyyyy”. I cannot begin to describe the rush we both felt knowing that it was done, after a year of planning, countless hours of practice and rehearsal not to mention all the preparatory concerts and of course the fundraising through Kickstarter and the Richard Carne Memorial Trust. We were exhausted but higher than we’ve ever felt in our lives, exhilarated after our efforts and hopeful that we put across enough to capture just how passionately we feel about this incredible repertoire. I should at this point thank Jeremy for being so totally unflappable, we often chuckled over the three days at his placid demeanour, never getting too enthusiastic after a good take or never betraying any frustration at all at our occasional ineptitude in the tired moments! Thanks also to Shun our delightful audio engineer from Japan for anticipating our every need, he seemed to have an uncanny ability to perfectly control the temperature in the room, provide water, tissues, not to mention push all the right buttons in the studio, exactly when needed! The Banff Centre itself proved to be everything we were hoping for as an environment to prepare and record in. We were extremely well looked after and at times it seemed like the entire staff of the audio and music buildings were there to assist us in every way possible.

One final mention must go to Henk Guittart, Artistic Director of the Fall & Winter Music Residencies who is leaving his post at the Banff Centre in a few weeks time. We met Henk at the centre last year and he has a very special talent at nurturing young artists. He is a phenomenal coach and this year especially gave us just the smallest nudges in all the right places to make sure we were playing at our absolute peak. He also made sure we had the performances we needed in the immediate run up to the recording so we were as well prepared as possible. Thank you Henk, we are not alone in owing you a huge debt!

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