After listening through a huge pile of mini-disks and CDs containing the outcome of ten years of musical activities, I had to take a deep breath. Just in time, our Internet connection went dead and I could occupy myself with periodic attempts of re-starting the modem, restoring its configuration, re-installing a bunged-up web browser and seeking consolation in the BBC series Planet Earth, accompanied with a 2005 Chablis Grand Cru that I had fetched out of the forbidden section of our basement to soothe my anger. Why did I have to take a deep breath?
To satisfy those on the lookout for any humble mumblings of confession: I certainly didn’t like every note I heard. But this is not what I mean, and it is also not new in the world of live performance. The only way out would be simply not to record any of one’s concerts: some of my colleagues rigorously stick to that principle – there is really nothing wrong with that. I recorded my concerts primarily for my own archive, and it is only natural that some of the results will stay there, warm and comfortable.
There are other things worth mentioning.
1) There seem to be three categories of sound quality in harpsichord recording:
The first is the fantastic, lifelike what-a-relief kind of recording we all are looking for.
The second is the muffled, unbalanced result of one’s frantic search for a horizontal surface within hearing range that will hold both the mini-disk player and the microphone, and that can be conveniently accessed for starting the recording when entering the stage. There are no such surfaces. There are no substitutes either: An extension cable for the microphone produces a hum. Taping the mini-disk player to the microphone’s tripod instead results in recording the drive-buzz of the player. A tripod will anyway always invite the nearest member of the audience to tap it rhythmically with a foot (always to the beat of some other movement, as it seems). Leaving the whole assembly on the first row of church benches always makes someone accidentally change the microphone’s angle by 90 degrees. A placement behind the audience reproduces coughs only. Baroque marble moldings are always too narrow for either the disk player or the microphone. And so on. So such recordings will always be muffled and unbalanced. But, in some odd fashion, they are always endearing: they often convey something of the special atmosphere of the concert and, in fact, of the true sound of the instruments – why this is so, regarding the usually bad circumstances, is not entirely clear to me.
The third kind of recording is the clinical, crystal-sharp, blinding-white recording by those professionals who have bought expensive equipment, who know exactly where to put their microphones and who have a lot of experience with how a harpsichord sounds. I happen to have a lot of experience with how my instrument sounds. It would displease me if someone would, for instance, tell me that it sounded like a heap of empty cans or a bucket full of glass or like an egg-cutter. It maddens me if someone professionally twiddles his little twiddlers and shoves his little shovers until it actually does sound like a harpsichord caricature à la Addams Family. I wanted, for instance, to upload a few samples of a J.C.Bach concerto from a commercial CD with Corona Artis, my ensemble. I gave up. These samples will not be heard here – and it is not the playing that made me decide this.
Why is the first category of recordings “fantastic”? Because it functions as a prolongation of what I do when I prepare the music, make decisions about registration, touch, fingering and articuation, when I tune and maintain my instrument. Of course I believe in what I am doing – a good recording preserves a bit of that commitment along with the music. Listen to the Rameau examples recorded by Erik Sikkema (in the sidebar: “mp3…”, scroll down a bit); that’s what I mean.
2) As it turns out, the best recorded recital (from 1999 – I am still in the process of retrieving the original disk) comes from a period of acute private distress. The musically most doubtful recording, on the other hand, was made when I was very stressed. While the first information is in agreement with a vague set of myths about the true artist’s soul, and the second information confirms some well-known don’ts of performance-planning, the clearness of the outcome surprised me nevertheless.
3) Hauling a fortepiano from the car into the hall, tuning, changing and playing, all in one uninterrupted sequence, is not to be recommended. Hauling the instrument earlier on a day and playing on the same evening is still not ideal. To play neatly on an early piano with its light and shallow action is difficult as it is. It is pretty impossible if one’s underarms and shoulders still are solid as rock.
4) I have consulted a few friends and colleagues. The odd phenomenon that one, on one day, kind-of-likes a certain recording, and hates it on the next, is completely normal: I mention this as comfort for anybody who thinks s/he’s alone with this problem.
What else happened while I listened? Ten years of concert tour diary bubbled up from the depths – braking for deer with six people in the van; what kind of Pizza I ate on a certain day (it’s always pizza, or a flabby burger, or a sausage from Shell, with instant mashed potatoes); how we, during an after-concert dinner, were descended upon by a flock of cultural ladies who interviewed us about how it was to be an artist (while outside the snow was literally pouring down and we had a two-hours drive ahead of us), that kind of thing. How my former wife, poor thing, dug the wrong red Volvo out of a half meter of snow – our own car stood beside it.