Recreating Grieg’s 1903 recordings and beyond…
When we finally finished working on the recording of the Piano concerto in 2005 it hardly felt like a beginning, but so it turned out to be. The original intention had been to see the work from a fresh perspective, breathing the oxygen of the new. To simply bypass any tradition-encrusted patina, and remake. Strange as it may seem, the inspiration was the slim but still vivid reflections of the work, recordings made when it was still modern music. Chief among them the cadenza made by Percy Grainger in 1908 and the composer’s few acoustic recordings of other pieces. It was hardly systematic but it was a catalyst, both for the concerto and this new, much larger and bolder project.
The recreation of Grieg’s 9 acoustic recordings made in Paris in 1903 could legitimately have been an end in itself. A huge amount of surface noise on the discs makes the listening experience a very uncomfortable one and renders Grieg’s performances virtually impenetrable. Computer restoration is one solution, but is, in our view, largely unsuccessful, removing as much of the really essential components of the music as the noise itself. In any event, “noise-removal” was not the real purpose of our attempts at restoration, being merely a fortunate and very welcome by-product. No, this recreation was taken on to try to understand Grieg’s performance strategies on both the micro and macro levels, from the very tiniest turn of phrase or weight of note to the boldest sweep of musical line and narrative structure. Furthermore, we felt that this newfound understanding could be brought to bear on filling in the gaps of pieces that Grieg – due to the time constraints of the 78rpm disc – only partly recorded, for example the last movement of the Sonata Op 7. Finally, we dared to use those interpretive strategies that we had learnt thus far to create anew the first two movements of that sonata and also Ballade Op. 24, music that was never recorded by Grieg. It is for others to judge its success, but it is certainly the crown of our research.
How was this achieved? Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, in order to try to recreate such subtle nuances of Grieg’s performance we could only be helped by using his own piano, still present and in fine working order in his villa at Troldhaugen. Playing the same keys, breathing the same air.
And then the physical process of recording – examining the components of Grieg’s playing and re-playing them: single notes, turns of phrase, longer sections, whole pieces; deconstructing, re-building, melding and forging. Understanding through imitation, and imitation through understanding. The resultant recordings were often massively edited on the computer, sometimes as an end in itself and sometimes as a bridge to further refine the performance for the next day’s recording. Either way, muscle-memory improved, the subconscious began to take over and some kind of contact was made.
We do not claim to have cloned Grieg’s original performances – though in fact they are extremely close and can, for the most part, run side by side without any discernable difference. That is not the point. Grieg was trained by Mocheles, Beethoven’s influential student and friend. These 9 acoustic recordings represent a link to performance rooted in the early part of the 19th century and now largely lost in present-day music making. They are real, physical and unambiguous examples of this great, otherwise forgotten, musical tradition. As such, they are priceless. We hope we have unlocked some of the mysteries that hide not only behind the wall of surface noise on the original discs, but also – and more importantly – within the playing itself.