A Winter Journey: The Making of a Recording in Berlin
What’s in a recording? The published reviews for my debut CD recording were dizzying, but I had had a tremendous amount of help from fellow musicians with the psychological preparation. For me, this sense of calm made all the difference. So, what was required of the intense world of the studio? Many of my colleagues have written to me to ask how I did it, and so I recall those intense three days in December 2010 here. It seems the feeling among all of us is that the stress of an unfamiliar process necessarily means a meltdown, given the costs involved. How does one not get bogged down in an impossible pursuit of committing perfection to disc?
My album was released last October–in fact three years after I recorded it. I was starting to think the disc would never see commercial release, even if this was a labor of intensity to which I had given everything of myself. Surely this sense of not feeling needed by the musical world or otherwise is familiar to many of my colleagues. There is rarely a market for new voices in a world that no longer buys CDs in the volume it once did. I thought, “well, if it doesn’t get released, and if maybe one day things move smoother, this would be released as one of those ‘the early days’ recordings.” I approached many labels, who (usually without having listened) were not in the least interested in taking a risk. Some labels, even small ones, didn’t even bother to reply, which is of the quality of PR that makes one wonder if labels wish to stay in business. The progress was discouraging, although beside the purpose for making it. Then suddenly a few labels were interested, and Carol Greenley at Con Brio Records was the first to make an offer on what seemed would remain a permanently shelved project. As it turns out, the CD is selling well. But then, the first reviews started to be published in nearly intoxicated language, and I am indebted to them:
“In an auspicious debut recording, Zsolt Bognar pays homage to Franz Schubert and Franz Liszt, a recital of resonant power and often compelling poetry…Bognar makes an impressive debut. The legato playing by Bognar persuasively transports us to more ethereally poetic regions, where salvation reigns. The right-hand arpeggios assume a gossamer luster and cumulative sweep quite reminiscent of the best pages in Liszt from veterans Cziffra and Horowitz.” -Audiophile Audition Magazine
“Bognár’s complex musical lineage is reflected in his playing, which is at once virtuosic, probing, and affecting…Bognár’s playing sizzles with white-hot virtuosity, pinpoint control, and interpretive freedom reminiscent of Lazar Berman. […] I know of no recording of the feature repertoire that is finer than Bognár’s. The most appropriate praise that comes to mind is that another critic once bestowed upon Ivan Moravec—each and every one of these recordings is a thing of beauty itself, rare and luminous as a Ming Vase.” -Fanfare Magazine
“This artist is well worth the attention of any serious music lover… ‘visceral’ is one of the words used by the European press to describe his playing, and I cannot think of a better choice.” -American Record Guide
I am of course grateful for all of that indeed, but the conditions had been set for me to do my best work. Reaching that zone doesn’t happen by accident.
–I chose repertoire that I had performed around the world for at least ten years. To commit something to record is not an easy decision to make, because as a young performer, I feel everything is always a work in progress. I grew up reading countless criticisms of young performers who apparently recorded repertoire too early. These works by Schubert and Liszt were the ones I had heard as a child and that inspired a feverish reaction of emotional inspiration that prevented me from sleeping many nights. A sense of a lonely journey, that of the 19th century ideal of the wanderer, was the theme of my program. A bleak way to make a start perhaps? Recording in a wintry and cold December in Berlin helped in what felt like a metaphysical way. Below is a summary of some of the best advice I had from my many wonderful teachers, as well as especially that of two prominent pianist friends who have helped every step of the way.
–Find a producer you trust, humanly and musically, and who has had lots of experience with young performers. This is why I flew to Berlin for my recording, because I felt Philipp Nedel was the best match for me. As soon as I met him, his other-worldly calm and compassion resonated with me–none of the know-it-all energy of other producers one can meet.
–Practice on the best instruments possible during the days leading up to the recording. This keeps your ears conditioned to the maximum number of colors, keeping a sense of freshness alive for the pieces. The risk is always to work a piece to death.
-Most important is to keep a calm and cool mind, but an intensely reactive spirit. I recorded each track in complete takes, treating each as a performance. To trick myself into forgetting the pressure of the process, I treated each take as “this one is just a warm-up practice take, first.”
–Keep blood sugar level steady for long periods with the right balance of low-level caffeine. Coca-Cola (as opposed to coffee, which has a sharp drop-off) had been suggested to me as the best, and that is exactly what I did, as well as green tea, which turned out to be too dehydrating. I somehow imagined that being a Coca-Cola Kid would give some type of great superpower. Speaking of people with real superpowers, this need was later confirmed to me last year by Martha Argerich, for whom during recording sessions I turned pages, saw Grappino soda present at all times–“Brain needs sugar,” she repeated. I also discovered that dark chocolate optimizes brain function and is otherwise just delicious–this was also recommended to me later by Daniil Trinofov, and was also used by Sviatoslav Richter during his EMI recording sessions for example.
–Don’t spend too much time listening to playbacks or reacting to what you hear. It can be humbling and discouraging in a way that can kill the inspiration’s ability to bloom in the moment. When I heard my first playback I wanted to die. I sounded rhythmically unfocused and my sound unremarkable. But, this enabled me to passionately reach beyond what I was hearing, in brief doses.
–Turn off self-critical thoughts by activating the memory of your first personal response to the pieces in question. I found that Stanislavsky’s notes on method acting were helpful in this. Of course, it is impossible to fully silence these thoughts–it is more about realizing that they are there, but not fully paying attention to them. This process goes into a Zen-like flow and takes practice beforehand–meditation can help.
–Trust and ask for the opinion of your producer between takes. “Did that sound ___ enough to your ears?” The best producers will tell you, as did Philipp Nedel, “I sense you were developing this type of energy in this section–can you bring even more of it?” Feeling one has to shoulder every musical taste as recorded by a microphone is too big a burden–this makes it feel shared.
-With each consecutive take, I told myself “let’s see if I can do it just a little better this time.” Eventually, time starts to pass with magical and lyrical flow.
-As I was recording repertoire very much derived from vocal lines, I activated the inner singing impulse with hours of listening to golden-era singers. Caruso, Björling, Svanholm, Slezak, Martinelli, and Kozlovsky were prominent on my iPod and were fine company!
-Activate a state of feverish emotional intensity and focus by removing all distractions. No phones, no computers, and no Facebook in the studio. I had to isolate myself as much as possible in the days before the recording. Isolation of course fosters a yearning for communication. For me this zone could only be achieved late night. Rostropovich always recommended staying up a whole night to sharpen nerves, but this is of course unsustainable over three days of recording.
–Give yourself unusually inspiring new impressions in the days before. I traveled to the Lucerne Festival to hear Grigory Sokolov in concert for the first time. It was a revelation.
-If you are a visual learner, as I am to an extent, spend lots of time with the score in the weeks before recording, making verbal notes of activating words that can only be discovered as effective during the many hours of practice and preparation.
-If nerves are a problem, remember that bananas are a natural beta blocker. If dehydration becomes a problem, hot water with lemon is great, as well as calming.
–If the brainpower seems to run out, take a 5-10 minute nap. Never force anything concerning your endurance. This was extremely helpful to me on ten hour days of recording. Yoga or stretching also helps~
-In the months leading up to the recording, I studied every available recording of the chosen repertoire–especially to bring into focus what not to do interpretively with a performance. This increases confidence and calm conviction in one’s own vision of a piece. After all, a lot of successful art is reactionary against external circumstance, or in some cases even defiant.
-When things get difficult, stop calling takes and just play for those present, with microphones running. If you have the luxury, as in this studio at b-sharp, take a hot shower halfway through a day of recording–they can last up to ten hours after all.
-Mozart once said that the spirit of genius is simply the spirit of love. This is a beautiful guide to be interpreted in any way necessary~
Here is the finished trailer for the album:
For this recording, I am indebted to so many who helped me and shared my vision, and to so many others who made it possible financially. Recordings are also enormously expensive to produce, market, and publicize, and I could never have done this alone in this respect or any other.