Tony Harrison – a personal view

A bit of a chameleon really, as a practical musician I am a conductor but I have also spent much of my working life as a recording producer, a far more subterranean beast to be sure. The alchemy practised by this particular life form – and alchemy there certainly is – is by its very nature at a level below the visible. In a sense the very success of my work here is judged, at least in part, by its invisible incorporation within the living, breathing body of the performance. And so it should be.

I find the recording sessions and the long weeks, often months – or, uniquely for this project almost a year – of editing and mixing incredibly exciting places to be. Unlike so many other walks of life we can write our own rulebook. This is a place where we can explore the very limits of music, firing off new ideas and running, flying with them – finding out what makes the music really work from the smallest moment of a gesture or an inflection to the grandest sweep of the architecture of the whole. It is also, at its best, powerful in its final effect but always curiously fragile in its realisation – and oh so difficult to capture.

But in truth I suppose I am still the nine-year-old boy who furiously cycled off to the local town one Mother’s Day with the unshakable conviction of being a good son for once and buying something really nice for my dear mother. Ever one to be side-tracked there was that defining moment during my shopping travels when I sped past what was called then, and most accurately described as, a junk shop. Stopping hard in my tracks the object of my desire stood before me, inelegantly propped up amid the grime and clutter of the shop window – a rather beaten up and, truth be told, not very attractive wind-up gramophone.

Not at all one of those beautiful beasts crowned most elegantly with its brightly coloured upward curling horn, but an altogether more utilitarian soul. It was very out of fashion even more then than now – solid square, and very brown. It came fully armed with a set of similarly un-cool brown slip cases each containing several heavy 78rpm records. But the inscriptions etched into each case in faded gold simply set me alight – Rubinstein: Chopin Concertos, Tchaikovsky Bb minor concerto; Serge Koussevitzky and Boston Symphony, Tchaikovsky 4th 5th 6th symphonies; Boult, Elgar 2nd symphony; all of them recordings from the golden years of the 1930’s. I somehow managed to struggle home with at least some of this bounty, the gramophone perched high on the saddle of my bike, the rest to be eagerly claimed later in the day.

I wore out that gramophone listening again and again to the treasures now firmly in my possession. A few years later I discovered that recordings were made even earlier than the 1930s at the very beginning of the century, captured before the invention of the microphone by using long straight horns, steel needles, wax discs and clockwork motors. I got hold of everything I could lay my hands on, this time mostly on the rather few transfers made to LP at the time. Among the many treasures was an EMI release (made originally in the dark and distant days when they still gloried in the name of The Gramophone and Typewriter Company) of the legendary German conductor Artur Nikisch conducting a greatly reduced Berlin Philharmonic in the very first recording of a complete Symphony ever made – Beethoven’s Symphony no 5 recorded in 1913. It was noisy and the sound made the telephone sound like hi-fi but it was a revelation.


Even to someone like me who had regressed a generation or two and learned so much of the repertoire from the lions of the pre-war years from 78’s, this was like breathing air from another planet so radically different was this way of making music. A few more years on and as a music student I was conducting the University orchestra in a concert that included the 5th symphony and did my level best to incorporate in my interpretation what I had learned from my long-dead heroes (I distinctly remember how my tempo at the end of the last movement, directly inspired by a startling Wilhelm Furtwängler performance with the Berlin Philharmonic in war torn Berlin, induced a fit of the giggles in one of my professors.). All this was of course very un-scientific and no doubt only partly successful, if successful at all, but I was trying.

The frustration at not being able to unlock these things redoubled as my treasure trove increased. Some kind of special magic seemed to be at work in Rachmaninoff’s spectacular conducting of the 2nd subject in the first movement of his 3rd symphony and it simply left me aghast. Its constant shifting of tempo, always surprising and yet totally inevitable and natural. How could that be possible? I was also absolutely certain that contained here was evidence of a performing knowledge of which only the slim shadow remained. It clearly demonstrated what musical notation, the written language of music, could and could not do. Of Rachmaninoff’s wonderfully flexible line, changing speed and direction seemingly every moment there was barely any mention in the score and yet I was also sure then that what the composer did was in no way mere ‘decoration’ or momentary expressive inspiration, heart on sleeve, resulting in some vaguely attractive and romantic flexibility. It was something much deeper, much denser that dictated the internal and external architecture. It was the music itself, in a way that the notated score, flat on the page, was simply not.


Rachmaninoff’s recorded legacy is outstanding but it is not alone and among the very most important things from an earlier generation is the remarkable set of 9 pieces recorded by Edvard Grieg in Paris in the spring of 1903. Both Sigurd and I had become fascinated, perhaps more than a little obsessed, by the sheer density of this playing with its extreme detailing on the one hand but almost symphonic grasp of architecture and structure on the other. This was big playing that was thrown against the written page quite as much as the Rachmaninoff – perhaps even more so. As a group it also had a strange sense of being planned, so complete a picture it gives us of the most important aspects of the performance of Grieg’s music. And not only his music. Grieg was a national composer and among the first to break the yoke of the German style in composition, but as a performer he was truly international and a wonderful exponent of German High Romanticism at its best. He could hardly have chosen a better group to show his range of ideas in interpretation.

So here we are in Grieg’s living room, feeling like a couple of impostors, truth be told. Our passion and enthusiasm for our project had brought us this far. It had already convinced quite a few people to go along with both the idea and us but here we now were for real, at the start of the bottom line, painfully aware of the enormity of the task. Two musicians, close friends, comrades in arms with a common vision and now a common fear. In a sense I am still on my bike coming home from the junk shop – but now with a mountain to climb.