Of wooden sticks…

When I was small, I used to throw little wooden sticks into every river I came across. I had learnt at school that all the rivers of my country eventually flow into the Danube, and with my grandparents living at the mouth of the Danube Delta, just before the grand river ends up in the Black Sea, I was absolutely convinced that the following summer, when I visited them, I would be able to go up on the walkboard by the Danube, and spot the wooden sticks that I had held in my hand.  So I threw these little wooden sticks as hard as I could and wished them safe journey along the massive waterway, hundreds of miles away from the Delta. Needless to say, I have never crossed paths again with any of my special sticks. The Danube however, has always remained in my imagination, all the way through my childhood and teenage years, and I could not help eventually giving the Danube a musical dimension, too. I am therefore thrilled to be starting the New Year with one of my most exciting projects to date – my debut solo CD Following the river was being released worldwide a couple of days ago, on 5th January 2018. It is the result of a long period of preparation, but the work so far has been tremendously rewarding and I have been blessed with a fantastic team to support me through the process. As we were preparing to send it out the world, I have found myself flooded with thoughts and ideas about the recording, its content but also the relevance of recorded music in the age of livestreaming.

I grew up in a non-musical family. Moreover, my folk were not even your typical concert-goers, who will have shelves and stacks of popular classical music albums ready to be played on the family cassette player. As a matter of fact, I do remember the first tapes and CDs that we got as a result of me starting piano lessons at the music school. One of them was titled “Best of Beethoven…”, but so much of it had been spoiled… I remember the 10th track was a truncated first movement of the Emperor (the compiler had cut out the boring opening bars, and edited the track to start straight with the orchestral theme). Years later, probably around 2002, I was learning the Schubert Impromptus op. 90, and my piano teacher encouraged me to listen to Lipatti playing them. Since we didn’t have them at home, and this was way before the age of YouTube, Spotify… (the time of the slow dial-up internet connection only), I was sent to a music library. I will never forget the excitement and slight nervousness with which I put the cassette into the player (the librarian had warned me that there was only one copy of that particular recording, and I would be in serious trouble if anything were to happen to it!), I plugged the big radio-like headphones in and then I immersed myself into Lipatti’s velvet G-flat major Impromptu. There was something in that recording that spoke so intimately to its listener, something that went so deep into my consciousness. That day I decided that if music mattered at all, it did so when it managed to touch someone as profoundly as that recording had touched me in that old and musty library listening hall.

We have moved on a very long way, and nowadays there is no need for dusty or mouldy library halls to access the recordings of the great masters:  they are available on an underground station platform while waiting for the next train. Technology can have its drawbacks – but this is certainly one of its benefits.  It’s wonderful that children no longer need to go to libraries and queue up to listen to the one cassette of a great recording, which will eventually wear out and need replacing… Spotify and YouTube have their complications, and now isn’t the time to discuss some of their controversies, but the contribution they’ve made to making great music accessible is amazing, and central to spreading out the message and values of music into the wide world. Used in a clever way, it will also stimulate people to come more often into the concert hall. Live performance and studio recordings are not mutually exclusive:  there’s space for both.  No CD, download, or livestream service, regardless of its amazing technological quality, will ever replace the goose bumps that an exceptional live concert can cause. At the same time, if we have access to amazing music in just a few clicks and it’s available to people who wouldn’t be able to attend a live performance, and brings great music to new audiences, that’s wonderful.

But what probably hasn’t changed, even in the era of the digital download, is the responsibility of musicians when releasing new recordings. When I decided on the repertoire for Following the river I confess I experienced conflicting thoughts. At one level, I was excited about being able to realise in lasting form my own interpretation of a music I grew up with and with which I feel a hugely strong personal connection. At the same time, however, I was terrified that my lack of experience at making studio recordings would be damaging. And maybe this sense of responsibility was greater than if I had been recording canonic piano repertoire – Beethoven Sonatas for example.  A slightly less than inspired recording of his Sonatas will not damage Beethoven’s position in the pantheon of great composers.  But when we’re talking about lesser-known repertoire with not many studio recordings to champion it, it feels as if the performer is also responsible for making the pieces themselves more widely known and understood. There are some pieces on this CD of which, to my knowledge, there are no studio recordings at all. So it was with my heart slightly tight in my chest that I stepped into the recording hall, determined to focus only on why I love this music so much and hoped that it would be enough.

The three days of recording went by in the blink of an eye. The more we worked, the easier everything became. The team supporting me were absolutely incredible. I could not have asked to be in more competent and caring hands. My producer Ralf Kolbinger cared for each detail in the score and, most importantly, he helped me carry it through to the recorded sound. My sound master Ralf Koschnicke created the best possible audio capture. One of the most important things I learnt was about caring for the captured sound, rather than the sound that I was experiencing in the recording hall. As live performers, we always focus on the sound in the room, but this experience gave me an exciting insight into what an abstract listener was receiving from my performance. Some things that seemed huge to me, in the hall, were almost unnoticeable on the recording. The wonderful Shigeru Kawai EX felt like a dear old friend under my fingers, and the support I enjoyed from Yoshifumi Sato-San, Kawai’s Master Piano Artizan, was exceptional.

Of course there were frustrations, one of which was that it felt as if I had become a better pianist through the process and the support that had helped me develop as a musician right through the recording session, and by the end of the recording I wished that I could do it all over again, using what I had learned. I know I am already looking forward to my next recording project.

Of course, nothing would have made any sense at all had it not been for the extraordinary music at the core of this project. Over the course of the next few blog posts, I look forward to introducing each piece to you, from a human and not a technical standpoint. I will attempt to take you with me on a journey back in time, and let you glimpse into my memories of a world in which people can’t seem to live without music, where they rush to music to express all their feelings, their joys and their sorrows. The amazing wealth of expression that has been put into the folk heritage has become inspirational for classical composers who have transformed folk material into richly textured musical pieces.

My special wooden sticks have probably long rotten and been crumbled into unrecognisable fragments of the riverbed. No chance of me every finding them again. They have probably long since became part of the majestic Danube, the eternally flowing river. I suppose we could view them in the same way as the people who were part of the rural tradition which shaped this music – who, in a moment of intense grief or intense joy, gave life to these wonderful melodies. The individuals themselves have perished in the darkness of time, but their creations have endured as traditional folk music, and in turn given a new life as part of the world heritage of classical music.

Note: Following the river is available now worldwide from JPC, Amazon , iTunes and Spotify.