Magic at Mechanics

Prof. Johnson and the Ledins Record Rachmaninov

Magic at Mechanics

So, Victor and Marina, gently but firmly, deliver instructions to the artists and the rest of the team, ranging from the banal (“We are ordering out for lunch today” or “Someone stomped his foot”) to the musically nuanced (“That needs to flow a lot better” or “You weren’t as ‘present’ as in the last take.”) Early in life, Marina wanted to be a psychologist, and she would have been good at it. With the mike that broadcasts down to the stage turned off, she suggests, sotto voce, to Victor “Let them work this out” or “Now they’re getting a little cranky.”

It can seem remarkable that artists with egos of the necessary size to go out on stage and bare their emotions to a concert hall full of strangers will listen to criticism and suggestions from someone who really isn’t a peer. But, more than once, I saw it happen in real time. Many hours into the recording of the D Minor Trio’s lengthy theme and variations movement, the Hermitage got to a section that, if note-perfect, was completely flat and uninvolving. After seeing that there was more variability to the dynamic markings in the score, Victor spoke into the microphone with a gently supportive tone of voice. “I’m sensing everything is mezzo forte or greater. Do you want to try shaping it more?” There was quiet on stage for a moment before the musicians began Take 7. It was magnificent. After the successful take, Victor didn’t gloat. Instead, quietly, he spoke into the mike: “Shall we try it again?”

Marina observes, “You can’t be in the creative process with someone who is ego-bound. Sometimes the musicians have expectations of what they’re going to do. My expectation of them is that I need to know, at the end of the day, that they’ve done their very best. If we’ve done our job, they have gone beyond whatever they’ve done as their best. You cannot ask more of a person.” I ask if the Ledins’ sort of interventionism is standard for most classical music producers. Victor pauses and replies. “Some do and some don’t,” he says. “Most are writing notes. There are some very fine recordings made when there is no interaction beyond the scribbling on a piece of paper and the final edits. We feel we are coaches in many respects. To us, a performance is the ideal thing to capture, not something that has been cobbled from 50 million takes.”

When the artists, engineers, and producers are all on the same page and everyone recognizes their unique yet complementary functions, some real magic can happen. As of this writing, I have not yet heard the finished product. But I’m expecting this SACD to be something special. Misha observed at the session that any assessment regarding the success of the recording would have to await the release of the disc. “It’s not for us to judge if the audience loves it or not. We want to put out something that represents us and I think the ‘channel’ of the Ledins and Reference allows that at least a chance to happen.”

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