Direct-to-Disc Recordings = the ultimate challenge

It is again possible to make analogue direct-to-disc recordings. One prominent example of this is the Brahms cycle with Berliner Philharmoniker & Sir Simon Rattle. What’s the use of it? It is by no means just a truism to say that magic is created already during the recording and not only in the post production. There seem to be musicians around who are only recording short takes with a length of two, four or eight bars or ask their editor to edit a ritardando for them, but this is (subject to some case-by-case exceptions) probably not the way to create recordings with magical aura – at least not in classical music. The result is then at best an artificial piece of work, but hardly an artistic creation. Apart from other preconditions it can be useful just to change the recording procedure. A mild rush of adrenalin and the recording can succeed.

We are talking about direct-to-disc (D2D) recordings, as they were customary until well into the 1940s before the use of magnetic recording tapes. And perhaps this also explains why certain recordings from the past have that little extra. But for a better understanding please read an anecdote by Gregor Piatigorsky about his recording of the Schumann Cello Concerto with the LPO under the baton of Sir John Barbirolli. The recording – certainly in D2D – took place on 18 May 1934 in that studio that is known today as Abbey Road Studio One. Perhaps the ›trick‹ is the suprise produced by the recording team shortly before the recording…

After many concerts the tour ended. Still warm from the Italian sun, I found myself trudging through rain and fog to the Gramophone Company studios in London. The recording room was crowded with gentlemen of London Philharmonic. They turned noisily, talked, and gesticulated. In Italy such agitation, an accustomed everyday occurrence, might be provoked by almost anything. Here the masters of self-restraint could be sent into a commotion only by matters of the greatest inconsequence. In fact, judging by their very excitement, there was no disaster in store. For in meeting that, an Englishman is composed. Emergency and danger do not make him move a music. It is when losing his gloves or umbrella that he is apt to have tantrums.

The conductor, John Barbirolli, let me know that we had only forty minutes in which to rehearse and record the Schumann Concerto. The engineers from ›His Master’s Voice‹ said that there would be no breaks and that the entire concerto would have to be recorded from beginning to end without a stop. Barbirolli, who was a cellist himself and knew the concerto well, doubted that it could be done. »Indeed, it would be a miracle,« said the engineer. »It will be the first experiment in recording a concerto as a whole, instead of making a break after each four-minute side.«

How will you avoid them?« I asked.

»By the time one side is completed, the next will already have been started by another machine.« There was barely any time to discuss tempi or anything else, and no time for a rehearsal at all. Barbirolli explained the unusual situation to the orchestra, and almost immediately the red stand-by signal appeared. There was a tense, apprehensive silence. The recording began. What was it? Mutual compassion, the loveliness of the music, or luck? I do not know. Perhaps no one knew as, with intense concentration, movement by movement, faultlessly the concerto reached the last chord. At this precise moment the voice of the first oboist, Leon Goossens, pierced the air: »Bravo!« Then the red signal went off. The »Bravo!« was on the record.

»I am sorry,« said Goossens.

»Don’t be,« I said. »It’s the sincerest ›Bravo‹ I will ever hear.«

»We can’t erase that voice,« said the engineer. »Please try the last page again.« As we did, there was the crash of a fallen bassoon, and each following repetition was interrupted by a sneeze, cough, or the scratch of my cello, until there was no time left for another try. The Gramophone Company succeeded only partly in erasing Mr. Goossens’ voice on the record, leaving his »Bravo!« for me to enjoy to this very day.

Gregor Piatigorsky (1965): Cellist, New York 1976, pp. 207-208

Listen for yourself!

Composer: Robert Schumann
Tracks: Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra in A minor op. 129
ViolonCello: Gregor Piatigorsky
Orchestra: London Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor: Sir John Barbirolli
URL: https://www.idagio.com/de/recordings/11007509