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Go Behind the Scenes at the Hermitage Piano Trio Sessions with the Absolute Sound

Go Behind the Scenes at the Hermitage Piano Trio Sessions With the Absolute Sound
By Andrew Quint
February 8, 2018

At 7 p.m. on Labor Day, I was sitting at a table in the empty lobby of the Hilton Garden Inn in Worcester, Massachusetts, waiting to speak with Reference Recordings engineer Keith O. Johnson. Across from me was RR’s public relations director, Janice Mancuso. She’d promised to produce “Professor” Johnson at six-thirty, but after 27 years at her job, Mancuso knew better. The Reference team had access at Mechanics Hall a few blocks away until seven and was using every last second on this, their first day of recording an all-Rachmaninov program with the Hermitage Piano Trio. A few minutes after the hour, Mancuso’s phone chimed. She turned the screen in my direction to show me a two-word message from Reference’s Vice President of Operations JoAnn Nunes: “Herding cats.”

Moments later, the doors to the hotel lobby slid open and in walked the felines in question, including Johnson, Nunes, digital engineer Sean Royce Martin, and producers Victor and Marina Ledin. (Executive and Managing Director Marcia Martin was back in San Francisco minding the store.) Keith Johnson is now close to 80, but if he was the least bit worn out from ten hours of set-up and recording, it wasn’t obvious; in fact, he seemed energized. Johnson has worked in Mechanics Hall previously—the Renaissance Revival-style building, constructed in the 1850s and restored in 1977, is a favorite recording site for labels big and small. Asked to describe the sound of Mechanics Hall, Johnson characteristically begins his answer with a subjective impression that progressively becomes more specific and quantitative. “It has a glow, an aura, a solidity that can have a lot of power. You can clearly tell the walls are heavy. It has a ‘tail,’ and a tail is a very, very important part of the concert experience. Say, on piano, you play a note loud. The string vibrates to the limit and vibrates a little faster—so the note has a slightly higher pitch than it would have if it were played softly. The fundamental and harmonics drive the hall hard and this little tail happens, which is probably two or three times longer than the main hall reverb. As the note decays, you have two slightly different frequencies going. It creates what’s called a “sublime harmony” effect—it was described originally, I think, for music boxes. It’s a little undulation of sound that kind of floats. Pianos are particularly good at it; some woodwinds and other instruments that are overblown do the same thing. It’s part of what Mechanics Hall does very well.”

The Heritage Piano Trio, recording onstage at Mechanics Hall

The following morning I headed over to the hall to observe the second of three days of recording. The large room was devoid of any seating on the main floor—the space can be used for weddings and exhibitions as well as concerts, and the chairs are removable. Onstage, a variety of microphones, mostly vintage Sennheisers rebuilt by Keith Johnson, are mounted on stands. (The exception is a pair of Coles 4038 dynamic ribbon mics, positioned in front of the piano.) “I have a direct-to-two-channel setup, which is how we’ve done most of our recordings. It kind of resembles a Decca tree, except that the center is a stereo microphone, not a mono. I will very likely have two sets of outriggers instead of one. Almost always, there will be a set of hall microphones that will tie it together. And these days, I use head-related transfer function EQ.” Johnson continues: “I’m recording for three different formats. Surround is certainly one of them. Two-channel for loudspeakers and two-channel for headphones—they are not the same thing.  I feel very strongly that the industry has to adapt because I can do my best work knowing ‘OK, this one’s for playback in a living room setting’—and I can do things that, for headphones, would be very bad, bass in one ear, for instance. Binaural headphones, on the other hand, can create a very immersive experience.”

Prof. Johnson had with him a diagram of his microphone setup, and I thought I might be getting some kind of a scoop when he said it would be fine to take a photo of it with my phone [see photo]. But, downstairs in the hall during a break, I realized that this was less of a coup than it might have seemed. The final disposition of the dozen or so microphones on stage was only a vague approximation of what was on the piece of paper. The hall mikes had migrated to the stage and the main arrays were wildly asymmetric in their right/left positioning, the result of extensive experimentation the day before. Clearly there’s a lot of empiricism to Prof. Johnson’s methodology—but no guesswork. Here’s KOJ’s explanation regarding his choice of just one set of microphones noted on the diagram: “Aux OM is a moderately bright semi-directional pair for glow or air that can be reproduced when string sounds bounce from an overhead proscenium. Their left and right signals were reversed to help compensate for a ‘ping-pong effect’ from the rove accents.” Many decisions of this kind informed the seemingly chaotic deployment of musicians and microphones on the Mechanics Hall stage.

KOJ’s microphone set-up for the Mechanics Hall Rachmaninov sessions. The final configuration of the mics was very different than the drawing. Note “Aux OM” (see text) near Prof. Johnson’s thumb.

A bundle of cables from Johnson’s hand-built microphone preamps wends its way approximately 200 feet to the control room several floors above the stage where the musicians are warming up. There, Johnson sits near the front, a few feet from a video monitor that gives a view of the stage. (In a row behind Johnson are Sean Martin, the Ledins, and JoAnn Nunes—the first managing four Pacific Microsonics Model Two A-to-D converters running at 174.4 kHz/24-bit with HDCD encoding, the other three with open Rachmaninov scores.) On a couple of small tables sit the home-brew mixers that have helped Johnson achieve acclaim in the recording world. The main two-channel console is a small, unprepossessing box with a few dials across the front. “I think I built that thing 30 or 40 years ago. It has almost nothing in it—just a bunch of variable resistors with controls, switches, and one little amplifier. That’s all it’s got.” That box sits atop a surround sound configuration and there’s also an “accent console” for inputs that are going to be used sparingly. A pair of moderately sized stand-mounted loudspeakers, again designed and built by Johnson, has replaced the hefty B&Ws that are usually used at Mechanics.

One is struck that nowhere on Johnson’s grouping of equipment is any sort of display or screen. “No meters, no lights, no waveforms—just a few controls that are dedicated to massaging or moving the picture,” he told me. Over the years, it’s been suggested that Keith Johnson has been secretive about his engineering techniques, but I don’t believe that this is his intent. Of course, plenty of audio engineers (and, for that matter, high-end designers and manufacturers) have a “secret sauce” that they treat as proprietary and guard jealously. But as thoroughly grounded in electrical engineering as Keith Johnson is, there is a significant in-the-moment creative aspect to the way he gets his consistently excellent results. Johnson adjusts the mix on the fly, as the music unfolds, a technique he calls “dynamic mixing.” The Professor will be a tough act to follow because I doubt he’ll be leaving precise recipes behind.

Keith Johnson at work—“dynamic mixing”

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.

Recording Rachmaninov—The control room at Mechanics Hall In front: “Prof” Keith Johnson Behind: Sean Royce Martin, Marina Ledin and Victor Ledin

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.

Ilya Kazantsev, 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.”

Sergey Antonov, cello

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?”

Misha Keylin, violin

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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