Magic at Mechanics

Prof. Johnson and the Ledins Record Rachmaninov

Magic at Mechanics

Although violinist Misha Keylin, cellist Sergey Antonov, and pianist Ilya Kazantsev have been performing together as the Hermitage Piano Trio since 2011, this program of Sergey Rachmaninov’s two ‘Elegaic’ trios is the group’s first commercial recording. No. 1 in G Minor (unpublished until 1947) is a single-movement work running 12 to 15 minutes in performance while the considerably more expansive Trio No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 9 typically lasts three-quarters of an hour.  How did they settle on Rachmaninov? Says Antonov, “First of all, we have played these pieces quite a bit and we know them really well. We’re absolutely in love with both works and we decided that they would be a good choice to show what we’re capable of—these trios have everything.” Keylin adds: “The ‘Hermitage’ State Museum represents the very essence and history of Russia while also using its collection to embrace and promote cultures from around the world. Even though our trio is also known for performing Mendelssohn, Brahms, and other things, we love our Russian heritage. We felt that putting out something as powerful and passionate as the Rachmaninov pieces would be the right choice for our debut recording for RR and a great way of introducing our trio to the public.”

The long day I spent observing the Reference team at work with the Hermitage Piano Trio was devoted entirely to recording the first two movements of the lengthy Trio No. 2. The players were quite aware that the D Minor Trio was composed as a memorial to Tchaikovsky (the older composer died on November 6, 1893 and the 20-year-old Rachmaninov had finished the piece by the end of December!). Ilya Kazantsev observes: “If you compare the two trios, the only difference between them is that Rachmaninov separated the last movement as a distinct movement whereas Tchaikovsky has a huge last variation, which is a coda. They are almost identically structured. To dedicate the trio to the memory of the composer and take his major chamber music work and structure it exactly the same with completely different material was a brilliant idea, and it works.” In the Hermitage’s reading, the ‘elegaic’ tone of the piece comes through clearly, a performance that’s saturated with the admiration the young Rachmaninov felt for the older musician.

The “filler” for this recital is the makeweight that so many Rachmaninov programs have, the famous “Vocalise,” a wordless song that’s one of the 14 Romances, Op. 34. The Hermitage plays an arrangement by the Russian/Soviet composer Julius Conus (1869–1942), who also happened to be the violinist for the first performance of the D Minor Trio in 1894. Conus’ transcription was published in 1928, but for the RR project, the original manuscript from the Rachmaninov archives at the Library of Congress was utilized. How did the Hermitage Piano Trio get their hands on this version, which has a number of differences from the printed score? Misha: “Ah…there are three words for it—Marina and Victor!”

Victor and Marina Ledin are a husband and wife team of classical music producers who have worked on more than 200 albums and have received 10 Grammy nominations for their efforts. They’ve produced for all the “majors” and many smaller audiophile labels, and a good deal for the industry’s leviathan, Naxos, where they participated in the development of several of that company’s extensive projects—the American Classics Series, the Scarlatti on Piano Series, and others. But the Ledins have always been independent contractors. “We’ve never worked for a label,” notes Marina. “The reason for this is that I wanted us to be able to say ‘No, thank you.’ Sometimes, the chemistry between the producer and the artist isn’t there. You have to be able to recognize that and bow out.” Living in the Bay area, the Ledins knew the RR principals well. Especially after J. Tamblyn Henderson stepped away from production at the company, the pair were a logical choice for many projects, and they have credits on a number of especially successful Reference Recordings releases, including Joel Fan’s Dances for Piano and Orchestra and Nadia Shpachenko’s Woman at the New Piano.

The Ledins aren’t fond of recordings that are assembled from hundreds of tiny fragments at the editing stage—they feel that musical and emotional coherency will be lost. The approach undertaken by the Hermitage and their producers was to record several complete takes of each movement and then to proceed methodically through the movement, a minute or two at a time, to provide any “fixes” that could be needed later on. On the day that I was present, it took at least six or seven hours of grueling work to record what will be 35 to 40 minutes of music on the finished product.

Watching Victor and Marina in action for a full day provided a renewed appreciation of how important a good producer can be to the success of a recording. All the stars can have aligned, as they clearly had on the Tuesday after Labor Day in Worcester—interesting repertoire, superb musicians, an exceptional venue, a talented engineer, state-of-the-art recording equipment—but if the producer is off his or her game, you can end up with a forgettable addition to the already bloated classical catalog. The Ledins do a lot of “repertoire development”—they have a collection of 12,000 scores at home—and have ideas for artists beyond the usual suspects. It was Victor’s musicological expertise that led to the “Vocalise” manuscript. It’s also imperative to be truly ready for the sessions. “We’ve done our homework; we know what needs to be done. We know the material and we can appreciate where it’s going to be tough,” says Marina. Victor Ledin is a capable pianist and often learns the keyboard parts to be recorded. Finally, the critical aspect of a performer trusting his or her producer when making a recording can’t be overemphasized. “If you don’t have someone’s trust in a creative process, they will not reach their full potential,” Marina told me. “You have to create a controlled environment and you have to be able to protect and shelter and keep the artist from being distracted so they can just focus. You may have only one moment that’s the moment of the album. It doesn’t come back; you can’t call it back.”

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