Recording Behind the Scenes: from the studio to the album The first thing that comes to mind about your producer Cécile Lenoir She is always in a good mood. I’m saying this because it is essential. When you can feel that there is tension in the sound booth, if the person is tired or has had enough, it can be very disruptive. Straight away, you can hear it in the sound, in the phrasing, in the style. And one of my favourite things about you is the feeling of being supported by someone who is happy to be there, who is enthusiastic and shows it. Influence on one another Alexandre always pushes me in my choices, both during sound recording but also for projects, the kinds of projects I would not normally
have access to without him, without you. And then, his eye for detail, his stringency, the very very exact stringency for everything, the slightest ornament baroque music for example, or in the sound, the choice of mixing, the amount of reverb…
It’s a very nice way of saying I’m a nightmare! … but totally warranted, because with such a fastidious way of listening the recording always improves. I think I am getting more and more difficult than when I was 20 years old for my first recording. And now more than ever. I tire easily now as well. Nowadays I have a lot of trouble recording. Last year’s Beethoven: we were supposed to record it in December 2017, 2016 I’m not sure, time goes so quickly. And after two days I said no, I can’t do this, we have to stop. In the end we redid it in February. But there we are, I get the feeling it is becoming more and more out of reach. Recording an album takes a physical toll on you. On the role of editing on an album It’s a mistake that a lot of young pianists make when they record their first album, which I made when I was making my very first album, which never came out in the end thankfully: putting the best part of each best take and constructing it in this way. It takes the passion out of everything. And with time you learn, and this I learned very quickly, that the more constructing you do the colder it is. The more you want to take out the little imperfections, the more lifeless it ends up being. And that is why you have to leave in some wrong notes. It’s difficult to leave in wrong notes. Sometimes you don’t play a wrong note but you play a note and you brush the one next to it and the felt brushes the string next to it. So you don’t really hear two notes played together but rather a note that doesn’t have a clean sound. And I find that interesting. The listener does not even realise. It creates something more human. You have to try and search on the human side, add something more human. The album at the end is always colder than what you expected. Alexandre is the most talented person I know when it comes to creating
a programme for a disc, preparing it in advance and knowing which parts are going to surprise us, and during which parts we can relax a bit.
And all this in a vision of the disc as a whole. And when there are big things, big accents, you have to think about them obviously in the context
of the piece but of the disc as a whole as well. We can’t put big accents of surprise or contrasting nuances all at once in one piece. During the entirety of the album,
it becomes more frequent and less interesting. That’s also something you taught me,
to be more attentive to things like that. I think about my albums as arches. Today we listen to albums in three minutes bursts, even ten seconds. So it’s complicated. But I can’t tear myself away from this desire to make albums which you have to listen to
from the first to the last note. A good producer, a good psychologist? I will answer! If you want. It is so much more than that. An artistic director is someone who directs. But for a recording to be successful,
you have to feel comfortable, so not feel too directed. And then when you’re an artist, you don’t really enjoy
following advice, directives. So a good artistic director is someone who knows
how to speak to an artist, artists are fragile. You can cry during a recording,
you can think: My God, I just can’t do it at all. Actually it’s not even “you can”,
during every recording I always have a moment where I say:
I’m stopping everything, I don’t want to continue, even being a performer in general. So to answer your question:
Yes, she is a psychologist. But also… It’s difficult, because Cécile has become
a member of my family. That’s how much we have worked together. And Cécile was there for some of the best moments of my life. It’s a very intimate friendship which forms. Even between an artistic director
and an artist who have never met, from the first day there is something very intimate that is created, a strong link. I become a sort of talking mirror in the end. My role is to put the musician at ease, to understand what he is trying to say musically,
to help him express this and understand the person to accompany him. Effectively, I can’t impose anything.
But I don’t know how to impose anything anyway, I don’t have any preconceived ideas. I arrive, I get given something which I receive and I have to try to understand, to see the little things we can improve because I don’t understand them. And do my best. The older I get in this job, the less I say. I would like to add something.
There is a third person in this equation, it’s actually a trio: the piano tuner. Especial Michaël Bargues who has done all my recent albums, who is also a great friend to Cécile…
A capital role! … and so I really get the feeling when
I am recording an album that it’s really “en trio”. The tuner is someone who has
to understand the artist. Because when you arrive in front of
a piano and something isn’t right, you say that something isn’t right
but you don’t know why. It’s really difficult for the tuner to understand.
You start using very bizarre words: it’s too fluffy here, too shiny there…
But too shiny, what does that mean? It can mean a thousand things. He has to translate it. A tuner with the amount of attentiveness as Michaël, is someone who will fine-tune everything: people, the piano, how to resound in a certain place. The acoustic is crucial in the result of a recording. The place, sometimes the owner of the place we are recording comes and tells us that something can’t work.
So it ruins everything. No one comes in during one of my recordings. There is Cécile, Michaël and no one else, absolutely no one, no one. The tuner is also there as a sort of binding agent. Michaël had found, I remember for the Goldberg Variations
in Aix-en-Provence… There was not enough natural reverb in the room, so he had gone and fetched some huge tables during the night!
In the morning when we arrived there were tables stacked horizontally, fifteen tables… They were big folding tables, he had put
the tables in public, facing up. … these folding tables 2 metres high.
And it was his idea. A tuner is someone who can find solutions
and not just with the piano. He’s a really good partner, for me anyway. I am with him for a number of other recordings. His role is… as we know each other so well,
and we are friends, we really work together. He brings something to the sound recording and I try to bring things as well to the piano. It’s a constant exchange, he is always listening,
with me over headphones, we are always talking.
He has a key role in the recording. The result of this is a real level of craftwork. There’s the three of us, often in places
which are not designed to be recorded in, which aren’t concert halls,
which are complicated, it’s cold, there’s the sound of water running, of electricity,
someone slamming a door in the distance. And the three of us are there, and sometimes
we begin to wonder what we’re doing there, how long does a recording last, a week? I take longer and longer. It’s true, a real professional recording is
a professional work of craftsmanship. With bits of string. Well, a big grand Steinway
is more than just bits of string. We take the best of what we can
and try and tune everything together. With surprises, bad surprises, everyday. Did you know that a piano, depending on the degree of hydrometry, can change its sound, texture and touch from one day to the next? That’s when we get the watering can out and water underneath the piano. Michaël arrived with a watering can
to put water on the floor in containers so there was more humidity under the piano. So there, it’s craftsmanship, I don’t see any other word to describe it. Lully, Rameau and Couperin at the heart of Versailles… I discovered Lully through film, through theatre as well. He’s not a composer whose music was written for the harpsichord
so we are dealing with transcriptions. Couperin, like Rameau, it was a recording by Marcelle Meyer. I was pushed towards baroque music by an artist who recorded this music in the 40s in a style which, compared to many of today’s interpreters,
would be described as approximate. I’m thinking of the ornaments, of unequal notes, etc. but the spirit is so baroque, that the level of playing is, for me, unequal. It’s performers on the harpsichord who set me on that path, who gave me ideas. In Rameau’s work for example there is a lot of freedom. You can take two discs by separate harpsichordists, there can be a considerable difference between their styles of tempo, and even differences of style, of phrasing,
of choices of ornaments. That’s perhaps what harpsichordists have taught me the most,
is the freedom of playing. They take many more liberties when playing Rameau, Couperin than we do when playing Chopin or Liszt. Any rituals before recording an album? Alexandre has many, many. The scores are laid out on the floor, piece by piece. There are kilometres of sheet music. It’s great actually, it’s nice. Sometimes there are candles, incense, a yoga mat for relaxing… … an osteopath who comes and visits… … it has become a ritual. The ritual of the first take.
It’s almost a ritual in itself the first take. The first take is always the most important,
always the most sacred. But we rarely get to keep it sadly,
because we change the tempo afterwards. But there is something about that first take. Shall we listen to it straight away or should we do another one? Because once we have listened to a take, it’s not the same. We seize up or we react to it
in relation to what we have just heard. So there is a sort of rite surrounding the first take. Your ritual is bringing chocolate. Yes, that’s true. I’ve been bringing less recently because it can give you a sore stomach, so eating chocolate with Michaël in front of you… We have to eat in secret because otherwise that’s not nice. When I eat chocolate, I take 20 pieces at once so for recording Beethoven or Rameau… Music, sound and interpretation: what to say and what not to say… Without saying too much. Because if you start detailing it by saying: On this note there was a wrong accent. Here the movement was slightly stunted. At this point, the nuance was not completely correct
in relation to the score. If you start making all these tiny details, you are no longer in the story that is being told,
no longer in the music, in the interpretation, in what is going to speak to you more profoundly. Not saying too much, already having some takes where the musician has been able to express themselves
without trying to do certain things or reply to any expectations,
just to be able to say what they wanted to say. And then once we have taken that like that which do tell a story, we try to avoid certain obstacles to the left and to the right to go further in the interpretation,
further in the achievement of the project. I stop playing the piano for a week before I record. It gives me this certain approach to the idea of playing like those who write mechanically, who wait a whole night until their hand trembles and someone else… it’s kind of that. That’s what interests me, it’s what escapes me,
it’s that it can come from elsewhere. And to do so you have to forget your culture, unlearn it. When I stop working for a week, I don’t know where I stand. And that’s when it comes by itself. And also I really want to play. Eagerness is a big plus when playing. So I throw myself at the instrument. Unfortunately, there are 2 hours, 3 hours, 6 hours, sometimes a whole day of playing which tires us. But sometimes, when I am recording, I have not played the pieces in a long time,
at least a week, so I have completely forgotten the details, the science of the writing, of the composer, our mechanisms, our systems. I can hear a musician in this state, without even hearing the music, simply by listening
to their breathing. All of a sudden, they will start breathing. I am always listening over headphones when I am recording,
it really allows me to stay with the musician, and I feel like I am there next to them,
to know when they’re going to freeze, breathe, be disturbed by something,
I get the impression of feeling their reactions. And when I hear the breathing, I know that that’s it. That’s when they’re saying what they have to say, no matter the musician, generally it’s always very striking and those takes always have something great about them.