Why? Some thoughts on what we have done and why we did it
The history of music is a rather spooky place. It is totally quiet.
Even I find this an odd comment to make amid such seemingly obvious aural riches that are a part of our everyday lives, but it remains amazingly true nevertheless. Where our eyes can gorge themselves on original paintings, sculpture and architecture dating back centuries and in some cases even millennia, their more abstract and insubstantial cousin is alive only for that very moment of its rebirth. When sound is released in the air, in performance, it then instantly recedes into the shadows, remaining merely as memories roughly sketched in the individual minds of its listeners until it is re-played or sung. You just can’t nail the stuff to the wall but how we musicians wish we could.
In truth we really don’t know what the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky or Mahler (to name but a few) exactly sounded like to its composers or audiences. What we do have are the hieroglyphics. The maps and codes, if you like, the written language of music, a frustratingly incomplete recipe, which, when mixed with our instruments and the new human creative spirit make the wonder, that incredible wonder, that is music. But lets be clear about this, there is no getting away from it, we don’t have the sound and music is sound.
Not, that is, until tiny pinpricks of sound started to emerge at the end of the nineteenth century, becoming a steady stream in the new century, opening into a torrent and then a deluge. I speak, like all of us of course, from the time of the deluge.
By a strange twist of fate it took a man totally without music himself – a self confessed music hater -Thomas Edison, to quite literally give music its voice back. Those first recordings are often primitive affairs and often provoke little more than an embarrassed smile. It has long been known, for example, that Edvard Grieg did make recordings in Paris in 1903 but, as one revered Norwegian pianist and teacher said with total incomprehension to a long suffering pupil: ‘I simply don’t understand, why did he play it that way?’ That was a serious and proper response, and indeed poor old Grieg has received far worse.
Worst of all he has been ignored. Unlike so many composers before the 20th century, the man was totally obsessed by the way his music was played, an obsession that drove him to continue to perform when weak and ill, for the sole reason of hearing his own pieces presented in the best possible conditions and showing people not what was in the score but what was in his head: the sound as sound.
This of course begs an important question: if these recordings are so important why have they been misunderstood and for the most part been ignored for more than a century since they were made? The reason is simple. These 1903 recordings sound horrible. Terrible. I’ll let you into an even bigger secret – I have never been able to listen through all nine recordings in their previous CD issues in one go and have derived little real pleasure from many of them at all as a listener. There, I have said it – and I am madly interested! What chance for everybody else?
But this is not a scientific exercise in auditory masochism. Grieg’s performances are wonderful human documents of the most incredible musical complexity and sophistication, which re-define the music itself and contain secrets mostly lost to today’s musicians. It is just that those riches are clouded by a veritable miasma of distortions – noise and other nasties, a spinning witches brew of horrible things. But it is important to stay with the idea that the recording process as well as the carriers themselves – the shellac discs – simply have nothing to do with the actual sound Grieg created that spring day in Paris. We need to find a way to separate the performance from the recording. For once we should indeed shoot the messenger.
But we had to go there to investigate and explore, and this is the story of our journey. Of how Sigurd Slåtterbrekk and I, Tony Harrison, went there, survived the trip and brought back our hero, alive and kicking, and let him play again for us and learnt from him his secrets. The new Simax Classics discs are the first fruits and are the result of nearly five years work. Thinking, playing, replaying, inventing, experimenting, thinking again, going half mad with frustration – taking thousands of hours of work.
The result, we hope and believe, is not something rather dry and academic (for we are practical musicians with a passion for everything human in the music we love) but a vibrant return to the stage of this big little man.
The reconstructions, recorded on Grieg’s own beloved Steinway at Troldhaugen, Bergen, live or die in their ability to thrill as his playing truly does. We can also all hear so much more of what was on those original discs due do extensive work on them and presented in new versions for the first time here. But the most important stage of all to us is to really learn and to harness the human brain’s massive advantage over any super computer, its creative power and its ability to empathise and reconnect with the core of another creative mind.
The recordings on the disc of the Sonata (and here is the ‘and beyond’ bit in the title), some of which Grieg performed on record, and that great, question-mark of a piece, the Ballade, which he did not perform, are not simply personal statements by Sigurd. They are of course most passionately that, as he never plays a note without meaning, but their deep framework, their architecture and their surface detail breathes because of what the old man taught us. These recordings too have been sweated over again and again, developed after the recording in similar ways to the reconstructions themselves. But they had to stand up, they had to be good enough, to be truly alive in order to share the same platform as Grieg himself.
It is for others to say if we achieved what we set out to do, but I feel we can already be proud. And come the day, I for one will, I hope, feel able to go up and shake him by the hand and share a cognac if such things exist up there.