Discovering the amazing Alena Baeva with UltraAnalogue Recordings: part 1

I’m casting my mind back to August 2018. I’ve been exchanging emails with Ed Pong about his Toronto-based label UltraAnalogue Recordings, which specialises in making superb recordings of chamber music in natural settings, on analogue tape. One day Ed asks me if I’m based anywhere near London. Turns out he’s going to be visiting with his wife Amy later in the year to see a concert featuring a violinist called Alena Baeva, and would I like to tag along? Sure, I say, why not. I’ve never heard of Alena Baeva, but since Ed and Amy are travelling all the way from Toronto to see her, I figure it must be worth me making a two-hour drive! Besides, I’m hardly likely to pass up the chance to talk tape with a fellow appreciator of the form, now, am I?

First impressions

Ed tells me that the performance in question will be the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall. I like Tchaikovsky, though I’m not overly familiar with the Violin Concerto, and the Royal Festival Hall is a much-loved venue. So far, so good. Then I head to YouTube to check out Alena Baeva, following some links that Ed has kindly sent me.

The first one I come across is this, a performance of Ravel’s Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello featuring Alena, cellist Julian Steckel and pianist Yeol Eum Son. Well, that gets me hooked in right away and I start searching for more.

Next up I find Alena playing the very Tchaikovsky that she’ll be playing in London: the Violin Concerto op.35, here with the Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra performing at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. This does the trick and I book my ticket!

The London concert

I’ll be honest, London has never been my favourite destination (I’m not great with big cities) but this turned out to be a really worthwhile trip. The concert was excellent. It was Alena’s first performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Principal Conductor and Artistic Director Vladimir Jurowski. And it was an absolute delight to meet Ed and Amy. Ed is as passionate as he is knowledgeable about classical music, and about all things analogue. He’s also about the nicest and friendliest person you could hope to meet – with a terrific sense of humour and an endearing playfulness about him too. All of which makes for a very fine evening indeed.

The reviews of the performance were also excellent. Alan Sanders of Seen & Heard International wrote:

“[Alena Baeva] certainly made a good impression in the first movement of the concerto, displaying fine technique, a pleasant tone quality with an attractively quickish vibrato, and her phrasing was imaginatively slightly different from the norm. It was in the Canzonetta, however, that her beautiful muted violin tone and her lovely shaping of Tchaikovsky’s songlike melodies marked her out as an outstanding player, and her account of the Finale was not only strikingly virtuosic but had a compelling quality of joyous abandon.”

Chris Garlick of BachTrack was equally impressed:

“Everything about the performance seemed to get under the skin of this very familiar work, giving it more than a new lease of life. The first movement had poise and excitement in equal measure, with the soloist demonstrating an exceptional evenness of tone across all the registers and an evident responsiveness to the conductor and orchestra. The brief slow movement was given the most sensitive account, hushed and romantic in the most tasteful manner. The Finale was everything you’d want it to be, thrillingly fast and technically sure footed, as well as having a true heart in the gentler passages. So, this was an undoubtedly a top-notch performance, making this masterpiece sound even more like one of the composer’s greatest works.”

The journey continues: from London to Oxford and Toronto

For me, when I think about Alena’s playing, the two words that keep coming back are ‘passion’ and ‘finesse’. I begin to realise that I think about her playing quite a lot, so I’m thrilled when Ed gets in touch again to say she’ll be playing in Oxford in June 2019, and he and Amy are coming over again. Count me in!

In the meantime, I discover that Ed has been working his considerable charms on Alena and her partner, pianist Vadym Kholodenko – and has succeeded in persuading the pair to play at his home concert hall / recording studio in Toronto in March. Oh, my birthday is in March, I’m thinking, so a trip over there could make a very nice birthday present to myself.

Ed’s sends over the programme for the Toronto performances, and it’s going to be:

  • Beethoven: Violin Sonata No.5 in F major (‘Spring Sonata’)
  • Mozart: Violin Sonata No. 27 in G major (K379)
  • Schubert: Grand Fantasy in C major for violin and piano
  • Schubert: Rondo Brilliant in B minor for violin and piano.

Of the four pieces, I’m only really on intimate terms with the Beethoven. I have quite a lot of Mozart but not this particular piece, and I don’t think I have any Schubert at all. So that’s cool – lots of ‘new’ stuff to discover!

Oxford Concert posters

But then sadly other things in life intervene and I’m unable to make it across the Atlantic. But then Ed says the very thing that any R2R addict longs to hear “Don’t worry, Dave, I’m going to be recording them, so you can always get the tapes.” Score! And I still have Oxford in June to look forward to as well.

Fast-forward to June 2019 and I’m driving to Oxford on a sunny Saturday and I’m booked into pretty much the swankiest (and priciest) hotel I’ve ever stayed in (my bad – I left booking till late and everywhere else was full). Still, I reassure myself that Ed and Amy are flying in from Toronto so their bill will be even higher than mine!!

Ed tells me that another friend of his, R2R aficionado Larry Toy, was flying in from the US for the concert. Boy, these guys are SERIOUS!

It was an education sitting beside Larry during the concert – his knowledge of classical music is cavernous, and he’s great company. (I’m still trying to tempt him into writing one or two pieces for this ‘ere rambling website – I hope I succeed, you’ll enjoy him).

Again, the concert was incredible, and this time I got to meet Alena backstage in her dressing room after the concert. Blimey, I was like a teenager meeting Debbie Harry or David Bowie… totally star-struck, bowled over, head-in-the-clouds. The woman has a kind of presence. You know those great performers (Bowie definitely being one) who totally embody themselves, their music, their passion; it’s like they’re at one with it, and you can feel it, it’s palpable. It feels as if they’re somehow ‘more than’ human. Like the creative spirit, the muse, lives in them. I’m waffling I know, but lovers or music and the arts will get what I mean, right?

So by now, I’m almost tugging at Ed Pong’s coat tails like an over-excited kid…. how did the recording go, how’s the tape production coming along, what have you got, how much do they cost… turns out there are FIVE tapes of Alena’s Toronto performances; they’re $295 (US dollars) each but, somehow, sometime, I’m going to have to have them all, every single one of them.

Long story short, I got there. I’m now the proud and delighted owner of all five tapes! (By way of a post-script there are now more than five… shoot, I’m saving up again).

The first five are:

Home again: with five stunning tapes to relish

I’ve already written, in a previous blog, about UltraAnalogue and Ed Pong’s superb processes for recording and producing his superlative quality tapes. To recap very briefly, Ed records in his home studio / concert hall – which, interestingly, doubles as an indoor swimming pool (covered obviously, when operating as a venue / studio!). He uses state of the art, bespoke, artisan equipment: massively upgraded Studer A80s (battery power supply, vintage tube electronics, pure silver wring etc), and similarly endowed custom-built microphone preamps.

The quality of sound and musicality achieved is quite, quite singular. To say there is breathtaking detail would be an understatement. I mean, if you have the knowledge, you can hear the difference between a Stradivari and a Guarneri del Gesù violin, hear the varying quality of how the bow physically touches the instruments’ strings in any given moment. You can spend hours with these recordings and still barely scratch the surface of what’s available in them.

Seriously, if you haven’t yet heard an UltraAnalogue recording, I would urge you to – urgently.

Up next in part 2

In true rambler style, I’ve filled you in on the backstory at some length here, so I’m going to leave the listening of the tapes for part 2, coming very soon, because they deserve some time and space of their own. (And because, admittedly, there’s so much in them that it’s hard to know what to say, where to focus – you should see the state of my listening notes, they’re going to take a bit of sorting through before handing over to my poor editor!).

Seduced? I have been! Back soon to tell you more…

In the meantime, you can check out –

Again, if you’re curious about what makes UltraAnalogue’s recordings so special, I wrote about this in a previous blog: Putting the ‘ultra’ into analogue: introducing Canada-based UltraAnalogue Recordings. I’ll also write a bit more in part 2, with specific reference to the Alena Baeva albums.

And finally, if you want to meet the irrepressible Ed Pong, here he is, filmed in conversation at Hi-Fi Show Live 2019 in Ascot, UK: A quick chat with… Ed Pong of UltraAnalogue Recordings.