Guest Post: Recording Beethoven at Hatfield House (Tom Poster)

Guy, Magnus and I have been playing piano trios together since 2001, though we’ve had some pretty big gaps in the middle. Following memorable experiences in our early 20s as the King’s Piano Trio, featuring Irish castles, a plethora of goblins and all sorts else, we tended to gravitate towards larger chamber repertoire as we expanded outwards into the Aronowitz Ensemble from 2004 onwards. But a series of opportunities has brought us back to our trio formation over the past season, and the rediscovery has been a source of great joy. There’s an intensity to the trio combination, which often requires a more soloistic approach from all three players than the quartets and quintets we’ve spent so much time playing, and in which everything feels a little more exposed; but the repertoire is so rich, and the challenges so rewarding, that we’ve been left with a renewed determination to explore a medium we feel we’ve neglected a little in recent years.
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When Guy invited me and Magnus to be a part of this wonderful Tecchler300 recording project, we bounced various repertoire ideas around before eventually alighting on Beethoven’s extraordinary Ghost Trio. Written in Heiligenstadt in 1808, when Beethoven was only slightly older than the three of us are now, it is a shatteringly powerful work; its rawness of expression and near-orchestral sonorities raised the trio genre to a new level, bringing a symphonic scope to chamber music which the romantic composers were to seize upon.
At the point of planning our recording, the three of us had only played this work together once before, and we all felt we’d like to commit to exploring and letting it sink in over a longer period of time than is usually allowed by musicians’ hectic schedules. So Guy and I blocked off a few days in early April this year to stay in Weesp, a beautiful town near Amsterdam which Magnus and his wife Marije have recently made their home, where between canal-side coffees and improvised lullabies for Magnus’s baby daughter, Alma, the three of us spent a memorable time getting acquainted with the Ghost.
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It’s a curiously difficult work to rehearse: the dark, visionary intensity of the slow movement didn’t immediately reveal itself in the beautiful, calm surroundings of the Dutch living room in which we were working, and the sense of suspended time in the pianissimo passages of the first movement, along with the sheer electricity and drive of the Finale, can be similarly elusive outside of a concert scenario. Sometimes the greatest learnings can come through performing to others, however informally, so we fixed up a first run-through to some wonderful folk in Weesp, another a few weeks later at the home of our great friends Richard and Helen Sheldon, and a final try-out in Notting Hill a couple of days before the Hatfield House performance. One never feels entirely ready to record such a masterpiece, but the acceptance that a recording is merely a snapshot in time helps to relieve some of the pressure; this is music we will continue to grow with throughout our lives.
We decided early on that it would be ideal to capture our live performance at Hatfield House as the basis for the CD recording: the Marble Hall is a spectacular venue, and there’s nothing like a full house of enthusiastic audience members to bring a sense of occasion and get the adrenaline flowing. But we also knew we would be glad of some further recording time the following day to give ourselves the space to go even deeper into the music away from any external distractions.
It’s always a scary moment listening back to your own playing, especially so soon after the event, and as we gathered in the tiny makeshift studio in the Hatfield House offices the morning after the concert, the self-deprecating comments and apologies for personal imperfections came tumbling out like dugongs. I find that I’m sometimes pleasantly surprised when certain moments I’d felt unhappy with in performance seem to have come out more successfully than I’d thought; but that conversely there are often elements with which I’d felt relatively satisfied at the time which don’t seem to speak so effectively on listening back. So having made our notes with critical ears, minds and snouts, we set off from the top of the score once more.
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Recording sessions can present many challenges – in the past, as well as missing the audience, I’ve often found that after putting a huge amount of energy into the first takes, it can be hard to maintain the momentum later on, especially when some are keen to go back over things to which others feel they’ve already given their all. Luckily, on this day, with the incomparably inspiring recording team of Andrew Keener and Simon Eadon, and an enormous stash of bananas, we felt concentrated and energised throughout the sessions, and unusually unanimous in agreeing when to let go, move on and wrap up. My concerns about needing to block out the daylight in order to channel the crepuscular mood of the slow movement (I’d originally had fantasies of a middle-of-the-night recording session) proved to be unnecessary, and an early finish meant we had time for a pint (though sadly not a platter of ghosts’ cheese) at the local pub before heading off in our various directions.
I’m excited – and as ever a little apprehensive – to hear the first edits, and to see the whole recording come together; and I’m even more excited to continue to explore the great trio repertoire with these two dear friends and colleagues as we continue our mysterious and magical journeys through life. Plans for a Beethoven trio cycle are afoot – more soon!
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– Tom Poster
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