Now that we've returned from Prague, my Heroine has granted me Guest Blogger status to explain why we spent a few days there and, in particular, what I was doing for two days whilst she roamed the Czech capital unescorted.
Many of you will be all too familiar with my 40+ year obsession with the 19th century composer Joachim Raff.
Over the years, attending the rare concerts of his music has been a useful peg on which to hang many trips to Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, New York and even Vietnam. We've also made some great friendships through Raff, one of which is with the wonderful pianist Tra Nguyen, who has shared my love of his music since we met 10 years ago.
Over the years we've made eight CDs together, and the Prague trip was because she was again in the studio, this time to record Raff's Piano Concerto and a rather shorter work, the Ode au Printemps, with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra lead by the Canadian conductor Kerry Stratton. Having been involved in the project from the start, I was lucky enough to be tagging along. The two previous recordings I'd attended were in concert halls, but this one was in a new state-of-the-art studio in the Czech Radio Center, right in the middle of Prague.
The walls of the studio itself were lined with adjustable sound reflecting/absorbing (I'm not sure which!) panelling, a forest of microphones sprouted from the floor, placed next to each set of instruments, and it was overlooked by the most impressive control room, full of enough techie gear to make any technophobe feel really intimidated.
This was inhabited by the producer, Milan, and his sound engineer (the guy who actually moved all the sliders on the mixing desk). Although the overall interpretation of the music (the tempi chosen, for example) was Tra's decision as the soloist, and the conductor's role was to bring out the best in the orchestra to complement her conception of the piece, it's quite clear that the boss on the day was the producer. He sat there, listening and able to look at proceedings below from his desk via two large TV monitors, but mostly with his head buried in the score, pencil poised, comparing what was being played through the three huge speakers with what Raff actually wrote. I was amazed at his attention to detail; nothing escaped Milan's ear.
You and I probably wouldn't pick up most of the minute deviations that he did but, after a few seconds of what seemed to me to be perfect playing in a take, the red "On Air" lights would go out in the studio, the music would stop, and Milan's voice would come over the loudspeakers saying that a particular sixteenth note was an E flat not an E natural, or that it was dotted or maybe the horns were guilty of not playing pianissimo or whatever. "Let's try it one more time".
The infinite care taken by everyone to achieve a perfect recording was humbling to witness. "Good enough" just wasn't good enough. On average it took around two hours and scores of takes to lay down around 10 minutes of music, and this from highly proficient professional musicians! I marvelled at their ability to keep the overall architecture of a whole movement in their minds whilst chopping it up into umpteen disjointed segments, keeping the tempo and dynamics consistent from one take to the next so that whilst editing the recording next week Milan could match together take #32 with take #47, say, so that to the listener the result would be a seamless musical experience.
The two days of recording just flew by in one intense, wholly absorbing experience, which I found utterly fascinating. It finished with a session in the control room, listening back to some of the takes to confirm that everyone was happy.
Without doubt though, the most magical part had begun for me midway through the second morning when Tra asked me to turn the pages of her score whilst she played. So there I sat, not in the control room or at the back of the studio as before, but right next to the soloist for three hours whilst two of the Concerto's three movements were recorded. I felt awash with music - the sheer volume of noise made it even more involving than singing in a Stuart Singers' concert, and the notes were going around in my head all evening afterwards. I feel really privileged to have shared that experience with these fine musicians. But now, back down to earth: there's rather less elevated music to learn ready for the Choir's next pair of concerts only four weeks' away…