Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time”
2007 - 2017
“[The recording studio is] an environment where the magnetic compulsion of time is suspended – well, warped at the very least. It’s a vacuum, in a sense, a place where one can properly feel that the most horrendously constricting force of nature – the inexorably linearity of time – has been, to a remarkable extent, circumvented.”
With the winter concert in the rear-view mirror and the spring piano recital months away (Michael Brown returns on Saturday, 28 March 2020), a recently unearthed concert video of my trio, Ensemble Epomeo, performing Penderecki’s explosive work has put me into reminiscence mode. (If you are wondering what I mean by “explosive” just watch the first few seconds and you’ll get it.)
Epomeo gave our premiere concert in Newburyport and finished our career here as well, performing at the Carriage House, St. Paul’s, and in a years-long fruitful collaboration with the Customs House Maritime Museum. In some ways we felt like the “house band” for NCMF.
Founded in Italy and based in the UK, Epomeo disbanded in 2017. It felt like the right time, partly due to the difficulty of our geographic spread – I live in Philadelphia, Diane lives in Vienna, Austria, and Ken in Cardiff, Wales. People would often ask where’s the sense in that but the fact is that when you find people you really want to work with and the other factors line up – similar approaches to interpretation and rehearsing, willingness to be away from home, time of life, dedication to the group – you roll with the challenges.
In ten years we made four recordings, which I listen to with immense satisfaction. I’m a musician and the nature of what I do is ephemeral; a concert exists in the present and then it is gone, poof! Recording is a separate beast. In a concert you are “on” for a few hours. In rehearsal there is a natural ebb and flow of energy. But during a recording you have to play like a concert every second and sustain this for days or even weeks. When that red light goes on you need to give 200 percent; any less and you are letting down your colleagues and the composer. You always have in the back of your mind that this is something for the ages (or at least as long as digital media is around, which might not be as long as we thought). In a concert I’m striving for excellence; in a recording I’m aiming for perfection.
Ensemble Epomeo with Diane’s predecessor, violinist Caroline Chin
During recording, the producer provides real-time feedback. You might hear the following comments between takes:
“The chord at measure 59 was out of tune so we need to do that section again”
“You guys weren’t together at 74.”
“Take 18 was crisp and in tune but antiseptic.”
“Balance is off in measure 131. We need more cello there.”
“You guys are getting tired and sloppy; take a break.”
“Take 127 was really good. We got one at last!”
After the recording session a different level of work begins – judging, choosing takes, negotiating with your colleagues. At this stage you can exchange a measure here or there or splice together whole sections even if they were recorded days apart. This is what Glenn Gould was referring to when he talked about circumventing the “inexorably linearity of time.”
The importance of an objective (and diplomatic) producer and engineer whom you trust can’t be overstated. We had a close relationship with our producer/engineer in England, Simon Fox-Gál, grandson of composer Hans Gál, whose excellent ears we relied upon.
Simon Fox-Gál enjoying some relaxing Schnittke tunes
The engineer masterfully splices takes while also making countless small but impactful decisions such as microphone placement. The engineer also generates the sound of the CD the way a cinematographer works out the look of a movie. Great films have a look that is the result of explicit artistic decisions by the director and cinematographer.
Try this: listen to our recording, not the music but the sound of the music. There is a lambent quality, an iridescence, that makes it glow.
While we were often associated with gnarly 20th century music, the core repertoire of any string trio is Beethoven. We had a prospective offer from a noted record label to record the complete Beethoven cycle but disbanded before the project got off the ground. There was even an informal mock-up of the album cover.
Here is the exposition from the Allegro con brio of Beethoven's String Trio in Eb Major, Opus 3, recorded during a live performance at the Deal Festival in England.
We had the invaluable opportunity to perform these works dozens of times and the more a piece is in your blood, the more you can take risks. Violinist Diane Pascal was such a raw imaginative force I learned from every performance.
Finally, I couldn’t discuss Epomeo without mentioning my long friendship with Ken Woods, pivotal to the group we founded together. We used to spend hours painstakingly tuning up measures note-by-note or endlessly dismantling and reassembling sections. Ken is great company on a road trip and has an amazing brain and wide-ranging curiosity about - well, just about everything. He is now conducting the English Symphony Orchestra full-time although he still breaks out his cello occasionally.
He writes a terrific blog called “A View from the Podium” (https://kennethwoods.net/blog1/a-view-from-the-podium/) and it is so Ken – smart, erudite, opinionated, and lovable.
Maestro Kenneth Woods, sponsored by Costa Coffee
I made friends all over the world, performed in major halls, and learned tons about myself as well as piles of new music in the process. It was a great run.
David Yang, Artistic Director
If Bach is God, Beethoven is Man. Where Bach speaks of eternal truths and the mysteries of the universe. Beethoven defines the essence of what it is to be human. I’ll show you in 40 seconds of music.In 2018 we played Beethoven’s string quartet, Opus 130. The fifth movement, titled “Cavatina” by the composer (a cavatina is a type of song) begins and ends with a slow melody that sandwiches six extraordinary measures. Over those measures he writes “beklemmt.”