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Recording Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ - a look behind the scenes with Yevgeny Sudbin

“Music must first and foremost be loved, it must come from the heart and it must be directed to the heart. Otherwise it cannot hope to be lasting, indestructible art.” — Sergey Rachmaninov The master’s own words could describe the essence of my reaction when hearing the young pianist Yevgeny Sudbin’s rendition of Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata for the very first time.

Sudbin’s extremely competent, sincere, and fearless deliverance, full of vitality and emotional depth, seemed to me like a musical messenger who was delivering his sensitive cargo to be passed on from soul to soul with utmost urgency. Yes — I loved this work of indestructible art, and it did speak directly to my heart.

Listening to Sudbin felt as if he was a soul mate of Rachmaninov. How else was he able to understand the essence of the master’s music with such intuitive insight? I set out to learn more about this extraordinary artist.

Thanks to pianist friends Sudbin and I have in common, I was able to contact him relatively easily. Then came the invitation to a very special recording session in Minneapolis; Sudbin was to record Beethoven’s Concerto No.5, the “Emperor,” with the Minnesota Orchestra under its acclaimed Finnish music director and conductor, Osmo Vänskä.

Lucky for me, New York recording producer Joe Patrych, who seems to know every recording artist around New York and beyond, took the time to prepare me for the event I was going to witness. According to him, it’s the human interaction and close cooperation between everyone involved which makes or breaks a successful recording session. Beyond the technical challenges of any such session, the “human factor” allows highly proficient individuals to come together as a team and create a masterpiece larger than the sum of its parts.

Inspired by Patrych’s credo I set out one very early morning in June to see and hear for myself. At the Minnesota Orchestra Hall, a very friendly staff member, Scott Mays, helped me to navigate the corridors, complete with thick cables taped to the floor, and big doorstops to prevent bumping noises during the recording. Upon entering the recording ‘sanctuary,’ I got a good look at the stage, where the conductor, the orchestra, and Yevgeny Sudbin, all casually dressed, were getting ready. A conductor in jeans and T-shirt, the orchestra without the customary black ties, and the pianist in jeans with a long-sleeved dress shirt? A very unusual sight for me, indeed. At the hall’s backstage room, which has been transformed into a recording studio, Scott Mays handed out copies of “The Complete Beethoven Concertos” music scores to the guests seated at simple tables — board members, sponsors, and music aficionados alike. One of them – Mary Sigmond, the president of the Minnesota Frederic Chopin Society – kindly explained the procedure ahead, and introduced me to one of the main players on the technical and organizational side, recording producer Robert Suff. Working with Scandinavian classical music label BIS, this thoroughly confident but soft-spoken man had two recording sessions planned for day one, and a third one for the day after. Sessions usually last about three hours, with breaks of around 15 minutes in between.

And t

hen the music finally started. I was almost immediately taken by the effortless intimacy that Yevgeny Sudbin created with the majestic Adagio of Beethoven’s last and, to me, most moving concerto. With some of the guests following their scores, I chose to observe the producer and his sound engineer whose very effective use of gestures communicated their comments as they listened.

Swaying to the beat of the music, Suff, who is a learned conductor in his own right albeit behind the scenes, interrupted a long musical passage: “The chords are too impressionistic. I could not hear the harmonies clearly.” Then he exclaimed, “The bassoon’s intonation is good now, the horns just a little unstable. But when the piano gets in, the bassoons are getting too flat, and in bar 60/61 the bassoon and the clarinet are not quite together. It also could be slightly softer.”

He explained, “I call the finished product of the recording a ‘hyper-performance,’ since it establishes a reality that goes beyond the expectation one has when attending a live concert performance. For a successful recording, the tension has to be built up at any given moment, in order to be able to captivate the ever-dwindling attention span of the listener. It is all about creating a perfect balance at an extended energy level.”

Sometimes it was the conductor who stopped a take; at other times it was Sudbin himself who wanted to re-try a passage that he felt could be played even more expressively, or a melodic line he thought he could connect even better.

“Yevgeny,” Suff interrupted a sway of beautiful arpeggiated chord progressions, “when you do that leap here, can you make the top notes ring a bit more?”

And Sudbin delivered. His top notes now rang like Russian bells, and I thought to myself that I had rarely encountered this kind of exacting yet liberated tonal control, perhaps only with the other Russian ‘Evgeny’ — Evgeny Kissin (spelled minus the ‘y’) — who, as Sudbin later admitted to me, was his very idol. I asked myself if there was something uniquely Russian in these artists’ deliverance … something about their playing that touches you right in the gut.

Keeping track of time through all the stops and re-starts, the orchestra operation manager and her assistant had their eyes firmly fixed on the clock. It deeply impacted my vision of the orchestral world, when, in the midst of an utmost exciting re-take, the operations manager started counting downwards from ten, so as to warn the producer that time was running out and everything had to come to a halt in seconds — artistic perfection, to be immortalized for posterity, versus the orchestra musicians’ right to have their meal break, a reality that provided a chance for recording producer Robert Suff, Yevgeny Sudbin, and myself to talk over lunch at the Ivy, Minnesota’s edgy hotel, which directly connects to the concert hall via an enclosed pathway.

It was he who immediately alerted BIS’s owner, Robert von Bahr, after listening to Sudbin’s demo tape provided by the pianist’s London-based manager and friend, Nigel Grant Rogers. And although there had been a stop to signing new pianists to the label, Suff managed to enthuse von Bahr, who decided to make an exception. “Yes – we must do this,” were Bahr’s very words, which greenlit what was to become an exclusive 14-disc recording contract with Russian-born pianist Yevgeny Sudbin. According to Suff, the deal perfectly exemplified his company’s ambition to accompany promising artists on their way towards success.

Sudbin’s first BIS recording, a collection of Scarlatti sonatas, was released in 2005, garnering great reviews, and putting Sudbin almost instantly into the limelight. Numerous international performances and further recordings – of Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Tchaikovsky, Medtner, and Haydn – followed the young pianist’s career break. Sudbin’s versatility added more rave reviews, as well as the Gramophone’s Editor’s Choice Award for his 2005 Scriabin recording.

Says Bryce Morrison in his laudatio for Gramophone: “No pianist of any generation has, in my experience, captured Scriabin’s volatility so vividly as Sudbin … All these performances are flecked with personal touches and brilliances above and beyond even Scriabin’s wildest demands … This, put suitably euphorically, is a disc in a million.” And the Daily Telegraph states in a 2007 review: “Yevgeny Sudbin is already hailed as potentially one of the greatest pianists of the 21st century.” Applause also came from fellow pianists, like London-based Stephen Hough, himself a sought after performer. “His playing his audacious, stimulating, heartfelt and utterly alive in every moment,” Hough says about Sudbin’s Rachmaninov recording (as quoted on Sudbin’s website).

It is then I began to understand that beyond the aura of seriousness surrounding the performer while ‘on duty,’ the private Sudbin is a very witty, caring, and generous person. He even inquired about my own pianistic endeavors, and about the Taubman approach to piano technique I am so passionately involved in. We both bonded over personal experiences of having spent time in Germany, and Sudbin told me about his early days as an up-and-coming pianist, and how he did not enjoy his very first performance at St. Petersburg’s International Special Music School at age eight. As a student of Ljubov Pevsner, he had been used to the drill of achieving excellence, and felt he wasn’t quite ready to play publicly. But then that very performance led to further opportunities. At age nine, he played with an orchestra at the Rudolfinum in Prague; the concert, which had been attended by 2000 people, was broadcast on national radio. He had never before performed with an orchestra, and never in front of a large audience. It was this watershed moment for the nine-year-old that convinced him that performing was his life’s calling.

In 1989, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, his family left for Germany, settling in Berlin. In 1996, Sudbin moved to London to enroll at the Purcel School of Music, and later at the Royal Academy of Music, while his sister and mother stayed on in Berlin. He nevertheless maintained very close ties with his family, which included his pianistic ‘mother figure,’ Galina Iwanzova. Like the Sudbins, and many other Russian families of Jewish heritage, she had also emigrated from the Soviet Union to Berlin. I asked him what he considered to be his home. Not surprisingly, he answered that he finds his home in his music, rather than in any specific nationality or religion.

When I asked him to compare the recording situation with a live performance, he explained: “Both situations have their own set of difficulties. It’s a myth that there is only energy in a live performance. While it’s true that an audience can provide that extra rush of adrenalin, in a way I am always playing to an audience, weather it is one consisting of three thousand people in a hall or a few very critical people in the recording studio. While playing, you are focused entirely on the music and the audiences are blocked out, otherwise every cough and bustling noise would make it impossible to perform.”

“Obviously any live performance is challenging, since there are no retakes. Mistakes can’t be taken back, but minor flourishes can be forgiven, since it is the whole picture that counts. And applause is a fantastic boost for one’s ego, and kind of addictive in its immediate response, which you don’t get in a recording studio. It makes you forget the hard work of preparation and more than willing to come back for more, the next time”, he admits with a slight bit of cheekiness.

And with a proud smile he added: “My recordings are like children to me. I put a great deal of effort and love into them, and they are very close to my heart. And, as with children, I worry about them. After listening to them initially, I don’t like to listen again extensively, for fear of finding flaws I cannot change anymore. Once they are out, they have a life of their own.”

When I mentioned the controversial topic of applause between movements, he responded, “I don’t mind it. It should not be viewed as a sign of ignorance, but rather as an indication of great appreciation and gratitude.”

Appreciation and gratitude for the creativity of the musicians and composers that came before him might also be what motivates Sudbin in his investigations of the artists whose music he performs and records.

Our conversation came to an end, when, after dinner, Sudbin called his wife, Sally Wei, who was expected to give birth to their first baby girl at any moment.

“I am actually really sad it’s over,” he said, when Mary Sigmond directed everybody outside to pose in front of the concert hall. Then he walked off with her, only to turn around one more time, waving.

On my flight back from Minneapolis to New York I reflected about my experiences. I had witnessed Sudbin’s incredible capacity of producing the most poetic pianistic sound, no matter if created in one coherent run- through or re-created with the tiniest of sound bites — even to the point of refitting just one note at a time, matching up sound color and sonority for utmost excellence.

I had been fascinated by the intricate process of catching each instrument’s voice on multitracks, from varied positions within the hall, and by the sound editing that resulted in a well-balanced, highly expressive final version, executed in stereo surround sound. Yes, the piano and the acoustics of the hall had been very important, yet for me it was all about the personalities of those involved in the recording. I felt I had met great masters, and looked over their shoulders as they created their magic potion.

Back home in New York, I learned a few days later that Sudbin arrived at his London home just in time to welcome his first baby girl – Isabella Yi-Ning. He will be taking two months off his busy schedule for the happy occasion; no doubt, his pianist-wife will greatly appreciate his decision.

BIS hopes to release Sudbin’s “Emperor” with Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto, both performed live with the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä, this coming fall.

In reaction to the article, this interesting account came to my attention, I therefore attach it to the article with my very personal impressions.

Live From The Control Room

26 Jun 2010

Inside the Classics

So much of what we do as an orchestra takes place on stage in front of a paying audience that we as musicians sometimes forget that the majority of our daily activities are actually a mystery to non-performers. Most people will never attend a rehearsal, never see us as a group in casual dress, never sit in on a planning session or a union meeting. And while orchestras have been working hard over the last decade or so to improve what you might call backstage access in the name of fostering closer ties between musicians and the communities that sustain us, there are simply aspects of the business that outsiders will never be a part of. And that’s fine, since most of those aspects are the really boring ones. (Honestly, they are. I could write a 10,000 word blog post about the fact that the American Federation of Musicians tossed out basically its entire leadership team at the union’s annual conference this past week, but believe me, your eyes would glaze over by word 50.) But there are a few of our more, shall we say, exclusive activities that would probably be really fascinating to people who take more than a passing interest in music. Auditions, say. I’ve written about them before, and every once in a great while, we find a way to let a journalist just far enough into the process to give the public a glimpse, but by and large, they’re a pretty private experience. Another corner of our world that you’re pretty much entirely excluded from is the one or two weeks every year that we spend playing small chunks of music over and over and over again, in the name of putting together a polished recording. We happen to work, at the moment with one of the world’s most exacting producers, Rob Suff, and his team from the Swedish label BIS. They usually roll into town a few days before we start a recording project, in time to listen to us perform the works we’ll be playing in concert. During this period, they’re virtually invisible, and have no say in what approach Osmo and the orchestra take to the music. But once the audiences are gone and the recording begins, Rob becomes almost like a second music director. I mention this because an excellent behind-the-scenes write-up of our most recent recording sessions, completed just two weeks ago, just popped up on Author Ilona Oltuski not only watched and listened to the sometimes agonizingly slow process of getting a piece down on disc, she interviewed a number of the principals about their role in the proceedings: Masterminding the musical process, Suff must incorporate all of a conductor’s skills, making him somewhat of a co-conductor. He explained, “I call the finished product of the recording a ‘hyper-performance,’ since it establishes a reality that goes beyond the expectation one has when attending a live concert performance. For a successful recording, the tension has to be built up at any given moment, in order to be able to captivate the ever-dwindling attention span of the listener. It is all about creating a perfect balance at an extended energy level.” Hm. Never thought of it that way. The other interesting aspect of the article is the moment, which seems to occur in nearly every behind-the-scenes piece about orchestras, when the author’s illusions of musicians motivated purely by innocent love of art run smack into the reality that what we’re doing is a job, and music a business… Keeping track of time through all the stops and re-starts, the orchestra operation manager and her assistant had their eyes firmly fixed on the clock. It deeply impacted my vision of the orchestral world, when, in the midst of an utmost exciting re-take, the operations manager started counting downwards from ten, so as to warn the producer that time was running out and everything had to come to a halt in seconds — artistic perfection, to be immortalized for posterity, versus the orchestra musicians’ right to have their meal break… It’s a pretty turn of phrase, that, and yes, it tends to be a shock to outsiders’ systems to see a rehearsal, or a recording session, be stopped mid-phrase because the clock ran out. But the reality is that we stop and start mid-phrase all the time, and it doesn’t have the least bit of impact on how much we care or don’t care about what we’re doing. What observers are really shocked by is the notion that we allow such bourgeois considerations as time and fatigue to govern how long it takes us to prepare a piece of music. Well, we do, and I’ve always been a little annoyed at people who are offended by that, in the same way that I’m annoyed at people who write long, flowery essays about how their love of sport was stolen from them when they found out that some baseball players took steroids. Anyway, Oltuski also got some extensive access to the real star of these recording sessions, pianist Yevgeny Sudbin, and he comes up with some of the most satisfying descriptions in the article: The element of spontaneity in a recording situation is, of course, harder to come by after the third take, but there is an element of perfectionisms, which can be satisfied to a much higher degree. You can bring out certain musical ideas and try them – time permitting – until you get them right. Of course, it can be a challenging process to go through tidbits of music, starting and stopping to get one little detail just right. But nothing compares to the glorious moment of getting a first edit in your hands and to be really satisfied with the result. He’s not wrong about that. I’ll never forget the feeling of getting my first chance to listen to a CD I’d played on (it was a recording of Copland’s 3rd Symphony, plus Appalachian Spring that we made under Eiji Oue back in 2000.) And the moment when I heard the crackling energy of our first BIS recording with Osmo was the moment when I really knew that the chemistry between this orchestra and this music director could lead to some spectacular things. No offense to Rob and his team, though, but I’ll take a concert week over a week in the studio anytime. As Sudbin said elsewhere in the article, something just always seems to be missing  when there’s no audience.



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