There’s something about the number three: it’s the first prime number, it’s the symbol of the holy trinity, it defines the dimensions of the physical space in which we exist. In contrast, in a duo (a pair, a duality), there’s a kind of balance between ‘x and y’. But when you add a third element it somehow disrupts the exclusive relationship between x and y, resulting in a kind of ongoing creative tension which calls forth an interplay on a whole new level.
This is what occurred to me while listening to this latest recording from Toronto-based label UltraAnalogue Recordings. The label, led by Ed Pong, records almost exclusively chamber music, featuring highly gifted musicians and, to date, focusing mainly on soloists and duos. More recently, however, some trios are beginning to appear, and I wonder whether Ed shares any of my pseudo-philosophical musings on the trio as an artform?! At this point, I make a note to ask him later (you’ll find his answer at the end), before returning my focus to mulling over what distinguishes the man and his label. Sticking with the theme of numbers, I’m pretty sure I can sum it up in five key points.
- “The music is the key.” These are Ed’s words, and they may seem kind of obvious but, trust me, Ed is very, very particular about what he chooses to record.
- The musicians are truly skilled. Ed sources his musicians worldwide and he knows exactly what he’s looking for. Not only are they technical virtuosos, they’re also gifted performers. Whatever quality separates the craftsperson from the true artist, Ed requires and pursues this, and also nurtures it, in his musicians.
- All of the artists that Ed records are playing top Cremonese instruments and bows which bring the utmost refined timbres and emotional sounds to the music, enabling a beautiful soundscape that brings each performance to life.
- Place plays a major part in a sense of ‘presence’ and all recordings are, in effect, both studio and live events. They’re held in Ed’s own dedicated studio space which is also a concert venue, staging performances to which audiences are invited.
- The recording chain is simple and purist: just microphone to microphone preamp, to tape recorder. A direct capture of the moment. The duplication of master tape copies is similarly purist.
Of course I’m massively simplifying things here, but you get the picture. The proof, of course, is in the listening. Having scrutinized and reviewed several of Ed’s tapes so far, I can attest that he has, time and again, achieved his vision, with each recording pushing the envelope even further than the last. So, when he sent me a copy of his latest – Mendelsshon’s Piano Trio no. 1 Opus 49 – I’ll admit that my expectations were pretty high from the outset!
So, let’s take a tour of each the 5 elements above.
The piece, which was premiered in 1840 with Mendelssohn himself at the piano, is constructed of four movements:
- Molto allegro – a brooding and intense opening.
- Andante con molto tranquillo – a melodic and lyrical slow movement.
- Scherzo leggiero e vivace – a brief, dancing and lively scherzo.
- The energetic finale – allegro assai appassionato.
While Mendelssohn may not enjoy the same level of ‘fame’ in modern times as, say, Mozart or Beethoven, he certainly should do IMHO! In fact, he may well be the most precociously gifted of all the classical composers, producing ‘mature’ masterpieces while still in his teens (Mozart’s youthful compositions, while hugely impressive, weren’t generally considered as ‘mature’). Mendelssohn was a prodigy on both violin and piano, and a bit of Googling reveals that he was also multi-lingual, a brilliant athlete, a talented poet, a painter and something of a philosopher! It seems that the man excelled at pretty much anything that interested him, and music interested him more than anything else. Of all of the composer’s works, his two piano trios (the other being Piano Trio No 2 in C minor Op 66) are widely considered to be among his greatest and most substantial (overturning a notion that his genius declined after youth).
From my previous reviews of Ed’s recordings, I’m already familiar with the trio of musicians featured here – so much so that the mere mention of their names is enough to give me a huge sense of anticipation. I’ve never heard them as a trio, though, and I can’t wait to discover how that pans out! Here are the introductions, which I’ve deliberately kept brief, but if you follow the links I’ve included then you’ll discover just how truly accomplished these three are.
If you follow this blog, you’ll know that I’ve been ‘in love’ with violinist Alena Baeva for some time (not romantically, musically), having discovered her prodigious talents several years ago through Ed Pong and UltraAnalogue. Born in Russia and now living in Luxembourg, Alena is a startlingly gifted musician whose international career has grown at an extraordinary pace in recent years: she’s fast becoming recognised as an exciting, versatile and enthralling soloist of world-class renown. You can check out her full CV at alena-baeva.com/biography. If I were you, I’d also take a look at her tour dates and, if there’s one near you, grab yourself a ticket.
Pianist Vadym Kholodenko has also already featured on a number of UltraAnalogue recordings, in several notable duets with Alena (incidentally, the two are now husband and wife). Ukrainian of origin and born in Kyiv, Vadym is also now Luxembourg-based. Like Alena, his star is on the ascendant and he’s fast building a reputation on the world stage. For his full CV, visit vadymkholodenko.com/about and for forthcoming performances (again, not to be missed), check out vadymkholodenko.com/calendar
Rounding off this superb trio is Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan. Narek is described by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra as one of the finest cellists of his generation who has earned critical acclaim worldwide. In 2014 he was named a BBC New Generation Artist and in 2016 he made a critically acclaimed BBC Proms debut. You can read a fuller biography at www.laphil.com/musicdb/artists/2241/narek-hakhnazaryan
All three musicians play exquisite quality instruments, each an example of the state-of-the-art: strings by Guarneri and a Steinway piano.
Over three generations the Guarneri family played second fiddle (sorry, another bad pun!) to the more prominent Amati and Stradivari workshops in Cremona. The primogenitor of the family, Andrea Guarneri, was an apprentice to Nicolò Amati and his hand can be seen in many Amati instruments from the 1640s and 50s. But it wasn’t until long after the third generation that the family name really came to the fore, when the genius of the ‘eccentric’ instruments created by Andrea’s grandson Giuseppe ‘del Gesù’ was finally recognised and appreciated (many years after his death, sadly).
The violin that Alena plays is incredibly rare, so rare that it’s not an ‘an’ but a ‘the’: the ‘ex-William Kroll’ Guarneri del Gesù of 1738! Her bow is by the legendary Françoise Xavier Tourte (1747-1835) who was probably the most highly regarded bow-maker in history.
Narek Hakhnazaryan plays a very fine cello dating from circa 1707 made by Joseph Guarneri, father of del Gesù – so in this recording we’re hearing ‘father and son’ strings. While Stradivari cellos from that decade were made almost exclusively in maple, Guarneri instruments were more commonly made of poplar which was less expensive and more widely available. Many musicians actually prefer the sound of poplar backs on violas and cellos and Guarneri seems to have favoured it, either by economic necessity or choice. Narek’s bow is the rare F.X. Tourte cello bow.
Vadym Kholodenko’s piano is the revered Steinway B, and this particular example is endowed with Hamburg Steinway hammers and special bass strings for improved pitch definition.
The place, you can see for yourself. In fact, you can see and hear the full performance of this recording on YouTube. Here it is:
The recording chain
So you’ve seen the live event. Now, to the recording.
From the microphones – a matched pair of Royer R-122v vacuum tube ribbon mics – the signal is transported along custom-made silver cables directly to the microphone preamp.
The preamp itself is a custom unit designed and built by tube (valve) aficionado Tony Ma. It’s based on the Western Electric WE437a input tube and the WE300B output tube (two of the best sounding tubes in audio). The use of a direct heating triode lets more of the real emotion of the music through. It’s an all transformer coupled, capacitor-less design with custom-wound silver input step-up, interstage and output transformers.
For this recording, Ed also found a pair of NOS 1956 WE437a and a pair of 1956 NOS WE300b, which together take these tapes to a whole other level of naturalness and realism.
More custom-made silver interconnects take the signal direct to the recorder: a 2-track Studer A80 running at 15ips on the NAB standard.
There are no mixing desks, there’s no manipulation of the signal at all, which is all part of the quest for startling levels of transparency and realism.
Returning to the Studer A80 master recorder, even this legend is modified to perfection: the record amp is a custom unit based on the 6900 tube (also designed by Tony Ma). An external battery power supply ensures the audio circuitry is completely free of any mains-borne noise. All circuits are silver-wired and use custom valve-based audio circuitry.
Duplication of the master tape, to create the copy-masters for sale, is then performed one at a time to another Studer A80 using a custom-tubed output stage driven by WE437a tubes. The resulting tape is thus a very close approximation of the original master.
One further point of interest is that UltraAnalogue record in NAB equalisation at 396nWb/m, slightly louder than is typical, which helps to reduce noise and improve the retention of natural dynamics. There are 25 seconds of a 396 nW/m level 1KHz test tone just behind the 1st white leader, which is recommended to use to calibrate your deck for optimal listening. On which note…
Since you’ve already got the video of the full recording above, there’s not much point in me taking you step-by-step through the musical journey on offer here, since you can see and hear it for yourself.
But (and it’s a big ‘but’), what you’re missing is the very different experience of listening on tape. So let me try to give you more of a flavour of that since, as you might expect, it’s a whole different ballgame to watching the video on YouTube, no matter what quality of audio set-up you may have your computer/tablet/device hooked up to.
Three elements keep coming to mind: the sound, the spirit, the emotion. And also the relationship, the conversation, the dance between the three performers. You get some sense of this on the video, but when you listen to the tape it’s as if everything suddenly leaps from two dimensions to three or even four, such is the leap in your sense of lived experience and visceral presence. And when I say presence I mean actual, in-the-now, presence: it’s hard to imagine that this is a recording that was captured x months ago at the other side of the world. It’s happening now, in my room, in my head, in my body.
The sonic character of the three instruments is startling. More than on virtually any other recording I’ve heard, I’m aware of the rare and precious qualities of each of the three. Individually and together, they sound utterly, essentially elemental.
The piano is so close I could touch it, but I know I can’t because it’s like water. It flows, sparkles, tumbles, soothes, washes, caresses, quenches, refreshes – allowing itself to be ‘contained’, deep and voluminous, still and pensive, sombre and reflective, when there’s a need to be, but never dammed or constrained. There’s a violin dancing playfully around me one minute and then aching with longing the next. The violin is the air, it prances, flits and flirts like a dragonfly, capable of being as light and nimble as a feather (or seductive as a feather boa!). And then it’s suddenly commanding, swarming, a brewing storm, the threat of a tornado. And there’s a cello that’s woody, resinous, so deeply organic and grounded and soulful, it’s as if you can feel the sap rising up through its body (and yours) and also diving deep into the earth. The cello is both wood and earth. You’d trust it with your life.
The balance of the trio of instruments is exquisite and flawless, perfectly judged. As a result, I can completely let go and the whole experience is deeply intimate – in my head, in my chest and guts, filling my room. It’s also expansive – a landscape, a wide open vista, a weather system. Sometimes it’s energizing and light-filled, other times dark and brooding. I’m whipped up and excited, I’m extended and stretched, then pensive and melancholy, soothed and calmed, moved to hope and aspiration, rising to determination and expectation….
And then it ends… the audience claps and, believe me, I clapped too. It was impossible not to. After all, I was there. Bravissimo!
As for my earlier question to Ed Pong about the dynamics of trios, here’s his reply: “For me, the piano trio is the ultimate genre. Why? Because here you essentially have three solo voices in the music, which means that three top soloists can really ‘sink their teeth’ into the collaborative performance. In contrast, quartets are rehearsed ad infinitum to create their cohesion, so I’d rather gravitate towards the freer possibilities of a piano trio. These are just my personal thoughts of course, and I’m sure that many people consider quartets to be the highest form of classical chamber music. But I just can’t resist the excitement of three soloists making music together! As for dynamics, I’ve recorded many sublime duos with violin/piano and cello/piano, but the sheer amount and density of sound with a piano trio is quite startling. The emotional effect is truly magnified beyond the sum of its parts.”
Here’s where to buy your own copy: https://ultraanaloguerecordings.com/new/shop/tapes/musician/narek-hakhnazaryan/mendelssohn-piano-trio-no-1-op-49-live/