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A Record Producer’s Diary By Peter Shore

Some BMS members may remember my articles in the BMS Journal Volume 19 (1997) on Donald Francis Tovey’s opera "The Bride of Dionysus." At the time of those articles I had compiled a concert suite from the opera lasting about 35 minutes. The years rolled by and I kept working on the opera until I had completed the transcription and printed out the score and parts of the whole opera using Coda’s Finale notation programme.

A good friend of mine, BMS member Paul Shoemaker in America, had purchased a copy of the handwritten score of Tovey’s Symphony in D in 2003 and had started the process of transcription using Finale. Paul is also a regular reviewer of Classical CDs on the Musicweb site. I suggested that we join forces to speed up the process, knowing how long it had taken with the opera. Paul had nearly completed the transcription of the 1st movement when he passed all the material over to me and by the spring of 2004 the whole symphony had been transcribed. The only job left was to find an orchestra, conductor, recording company etc. etc. interested enough to perform it! Seriously, the transcription work is the easy part. Persuading people that it is worth performing and listening to is the difficult job!

Musicweb had published an interview with Robert von Bahr, the owner and founder of BIS Records in Sweden. In it Robert said that the real stumbling block, still, is the exorbitant fees that some publishers, luckily not all, are asking for letting someone take a huge risk in recording works that they don't always know themselves that they have. He went on to say that not being content with cashing a large part of the copyright fees we (the record companies) pay upon selling the CD, they want to have a huge fee for sending the materials (scores and parts) to us for the recording, materials that often are in such a condition that the recording has to be postponed or even cancelled. I called on Robert at BIS headquarters outside Stockholm just before Easter 2004 and showed him the Tovey material and told him I was not interested in collecting exorbitant fees but giving the record buying public a chance to hear Tovey’s music.

Some months passed before Robert Suff, BIS’s chief producer contacted me and told me that they had a considerable backlog of recordings and it would be some time before they could turn their attention to Tovey. Robert suggested that I contact Martin Anderson of Toccata Publications in London who was planning to start a new record label, Toccata Classics, to record lesser well-known works and composers. This was after I had been in England in June to visit family and Paul Adrian Rooke, conductor of the Hitchin Symphony Orchestra. Paul had written an article in the March 2004 newsletter about his work transcribing Rutland Boughton’s opera "The Queen of Cornwall" onto the computer using the ‘Sibelius’ software. I wanted to see his working methods and compare working with Coda’s Finale notation software and Sibelius. Paul very kindly invited me to his home in Hitchin and showed me the work he had carried out on ‘The Queen of Cornwall’. He mentioned that the Hitchin Symphony Orchestra were planning to give their 75th Anniversary Gala Concert at the end of November with a performance of Rutland Boughton’s Reunion Variations for orchestra in two versions. I asked if they were planning to record the concert and suggested that they get in touch with my old school friend, Tony Philpot, who had been a senior sound supervisor and manager of the BBC TV music studio but was now working as a freelance sound engineer. Tony was contacted and booked to do the recording in November. By this time I had been in contact with Martin Anderson and we had agreed to meet in November when I would be in England to help Tony Record the Hitchin Symphony Orchestra gala concert.

Martin and I met in his apartment in Westminster on a wet November afternoon and I showed him examples of the scores of Tovey’s symphony and the opera. Martin immediately rang up a conductor he knew who was asked if he might be interested to record Tovey’s music. I returned to Sweden and a flood of emails began pouring across the North Sea. Martin had planned to record works by the Swedish composer Hilding Rosenberg and a deal had been made with the Malmö Opera Orchestra in southern Sweden. But Martin couldn’t find any music by Rosenberg which hadn’t already been recorded and which he liked. So he suggested recording the Tovey Symphony instead. The orchestral director in Malmö didn’t know anything about Tovey and didn’t like the idea although the orchestra had recorded Frederic Cliffe’s symphony with a British conductor [Chris Fifield - also a MusicWeb contributor - review]. Reluctantly Malmö changed their minds, as the orchestra was already booked. Then the conductor changed his mind and said he couldn’t conduct Tovey. Then Martin got in touch with the conductor, George Vass who said he had a spare week at the end of May and would be only too happy to conduct the Tovey symphony.

George Vass studied at the Birmingham Conservatoire and the Royal Academy of Music under such eminent musicians as James Blades and Paul Patterson, and made his professional conducting debut at St John's Smith Square, London at the age of twenty-two. As artistic director of the Regent Sinfonia of London he appeared at many of the United Kingdom's premier concert halls and festivals, including the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room on London's South Bank. He was principal guest conductor with Amsterdams Promenade Orkest from 1985 until 1988, having made many guest appearances with groups including Konzertensemble Salzburg, Joyful Company of Singers, London Mozart Players, Bournemouth Sinfonietta, Schola Cantorum of Oxford and Oxford Orchestra da Camera. He has also broadcast for BBC radio and Channel 4 television, and in 1999 conducted at Symphony Hall, Birmingham for the first time.

George Vass has held the post of artistic director to the Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts since 1992. He is also currently artistic director of Orchestra Nova and serves the Bushey Symphony Orchestra, Canterbury Chamber Choir, Finchley Choral Society and St Albans Choral Society as music director. After successfully planning and programming the 2004 Hampstead and Highgate Festival, George Vass was appointed artistic director shortly afterwards.

I received a call from George who was in the middle of planning the 2005 Hampstead and Highgate Festival and after a long chat realised we had at last found our conductor. Malmö was not at all pleased with the change of conductor as well as the composer. But agreements had been signed so they reluctantly decided to go ahead. It was the middle of April and the orchestra wanted the parts for rehearsal. So I loaded my car up with music and drove the 630 kilometres (392 miles) from Stockholm to Malmö. I had arranged a meeting with Per-Ola Nilsson the orchestral director and Stefan Klaverdal the recording engineer at the Opera House in Malmö. Stefan Klaverdal is my elder son’s best friend and I have known Stefan and his family since he was six years old. Stefan studied composition and music production (tonmeister) at the Music Academy in Malmö and already has a long list of compositions to his name. The meeting with Per-Ola was successful and leaving the parts for the symphony and the opera with the music librarians Stefan and I visited the church near the opera house where we had planned to do the recording. What I discovered was that a railway tunnel was being built directly under the church and not only would we be constantly interrupted by intermittent blasting but that large lorries carrying debris would be rumbling past the building day and night for the next two years! The opera house could not be used because it was closed for maintenance work until 2006. Somewhere had to be found and quickly! Somebody mentioned that the opera orchestra had recorded Björn and Benny’s (of ABBA fame) musical ‘Kristina of Duvamåla’ in the orchestral studio of Swedish Radio in Malmö. One of Stefan’s teachers on his music production course was a sound engineer with Swedish Radio and a telephone call to him confirmed that the studio would be available for hire for the dates we required. I drove the 630 kilometres back to Stockholm with a sigh of relief.

Two weeks before recording was due to start I received a phone call from Per-Ola. The orchestra had been rehearsing the music in advance (that's dedication for you!) and had come across some mistakes in the parts. Some quick phone calls to the various section leaders and I realised that I had quite a lot of work ahead of me to correct and reprint the parts in time for the session. Most of the problems seem to be in the Horn parts.

Sunday, 22nd May. The alarm wakes me at 4 a.m. and by 5.30 I’m on the road driving the 630 kilometres/392 miles to Malmö. I arrive there just after lunch and book into the hotel just down the road from the opera house. The hotel is in the middle of renovating the ground floor and the lobby, so it is an obstacle course over building debris, and builders to the lift. George will be arriving at the central railway station in the evening having flown from London via Copenhagen. After a rest I meet up with Stefan and we discuss the microphone set up and other technical details for the following day. Fortunately all the orchestra’s stands, chairs and music had already been set up in the studio the previous Friday so there would be no delays in getting started. A 20 minutes walk from the hotel got me to the station and then another short walk to the studio, which was closed. George rang from Copenhagen so I went back to the station to meet him. I had seen pictures of him on his web site so he was not difficult to find when he stepped off the train. The previous evening he had been conducting the final concert of the Hampstead and Highgate Festival and as well as being festival director he had been getting up at 6 a.m. to study the Tovey scores (that's also dedication for you!). A taxi back to the hotel, and a quick meal where we discussed plans for tomorrow and then an early night.

Monday, 23rd May. I’m up early and meet George for breakfast. The sessions will be between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. every day but I have to be in early to help Stefan rig the mikes and get the rest of his equipment set up. George and I arrive at the Swedish Radio centre where Stefan is already loading his gear into the service lift to take it to the studio (studio 7), which is on the 3rd floor. Stefan had told me that the reason we had no difficulty hiring the studio was because it was not used very often. The plan had been to install a digital system into the control room but as is often the case budget restraints had put a stop to that investment for the time being. I had expected to find the control room empty, but is was a fully equipped analogue studio with a large MCI mixing desk and a battery of outboard equipment. We placed a table in front of the mixing desk and Stefan set up his digital equipment, which consisted of a rack of analogue/digital converters his MAC PC, screen, a small mixer, keyboard and mouse plus a power amplifier and monitor speakers. It just shows how quickly things can become obsolete! We went down into the studio to start rigging the mikes. Everything was ready for the orchestra but round the edges of the studio it was packed with pianos, mike stands, tubular bells, tarps, boxes, chairs etc. It seems they hadn’t had a proper clearout in years. Under one of the tarps we found a conductor’s podium, which George was glad to make use of. At 9 o’clock the orchestra began to arrive. The Malmö Opera Orchestra is a young orchestra and many of the players knew Stefan from his time at the music academy. By 10 o’clock we were ready to start and I introduced George, Stefan and I and told them about Tovey and my family connection to him through my grandmother who was his first cousin. This was a tense moment as it was the first time the orchestra and we had met each other. George immediately turned to the first movement of the Symphony, raised his baton and we were off. While Stefan began setting the balance in the control room I sat down next to George with Tovey’s handwritten score in front of me. Now the music that I had heard so many times coming out of the speakers of my computer began pouring over me creating a wave of emotion that only a living, breathing orchestra can produce.

Malmö Opera Orchestra conducted by George Vass with producer Peter Shore in Studio 7, Swedish Radio Malmö May 2005. Photograph by Stefan Klaverdal.

We had decided that the first day would be devoted to rehearsal and sorting out problems in the score, which turned out to be a wise decision. It soon became apparent that there were problems in the Horn parts. The horn players were reading what was written but it didn’t sound right. Not everything was wrong but enough to be disturbing. I asked them to do their best and I would check their parts against Tovey’s hand written score and make the corrections in time for tomorrow’s session. George was busy sorting out the balance between the sections and getting the strings to phrase the way he wanted. He was concerned about Tovey’s tempo changes in the slow movement, which didn’t make sense and that he couldn’t consult with the composer who had been dead for over 60 years. George is used to working with living composers and sorting out problems with them on the spot.

I saw Per-Ola Nilsson, the orchestra director standing by the door to the control room listening to the rehearsal with a big smile on his face. Well, I thought, at least we don’t have to worry there. During the lunch break I went into the control room and began listening to the test recordings Stefan had made during the morning session. I could hear that there was plenty of work to do but that the orchestra was beginning to understand Tovey’s musical language. George had wanted to break up each movement into short takes but we decided to record each movement as a whole and then do short takes for editing purposes. The rest of the afternoon was spent fine-tuning the orchestra and by 4 o’clock we had run through the symphony as well as the orchestral excerpts from the opera, so we called it a day. George and I were soaked in sweat so after collecting the horn parts George and I walked back to the hotel for a well-earned rest before going out for a curry. Back at the hotel I realised that I had a lot of work ahead of me checking through the horn parts, which kept me busy until 1 a.m.

Tuesday, 24th May. The alarm wakes me at 6.45 a.m. and by quarter past I am down in the dining room for breakfast. I plan to be in the studio by 8 o’clock in order to enter the correction I have found onto the computer and print out a new set of Horn parts. George is already having his breakfast together with our orchestral leader, Tomas Gustafsson. I have no idea he was staying at the same hotel. It turns out that Malmö’s orchestral leader is off sick with a broken leg and Tomas was called in at the last moment. Normally Tomas is the orchestral leader of the Royal Opera Orchestra in Stockholm, which is better known as the Kungliga Hovkapellet. The Kungliga Hovkapellet is one of the world’s oldest active orchestra’s and can trace its origins back as far as 1526 during the reign of King Gustav Wasa. I recognise Tomas from a performance of Verdi’s Requiem in a church in Stockholm where I was singing in the chorus and the Kungliga Hovkapellet was the orchestra. Things are really looking up.

Arriving at the studio Stefan and I sort out the Horn parts (we think!). The problem seems to be that in the handwritten score the first and second horns are written together on one stave and the third and forth horns on another. I have done the same thing when I transcribed the score onto the computer. When it comes to printing out the parts the instruments have to be separated. It is during this process that something has gone wrong (probably my fault!). Horns are transposing instruments in F. That is in order for them to play a concert C the part has to be transposed up a fifth to a G. It is also customary for the horn parts to be written without a key signature, so all accidentals have to be included. In the process of separating the parts the transposition hasn’t taken place and a plug-in in the program, which is supposed to include the missing accidentals hasn’t worked. The first horn player is from Denmark. Danish is a mixture of Swedish and Germany sounding as if there is something stuck in one’s throat (sorry Danes!). I have lived in Sweden for over 30 years but still have difficulty understanding the Danes. I understand his frustration but we have difficulty communicating. The second horn player (Swedish) has given up communicating all together.

George wants to get started so I totter up the stairs back into the control room and we do a complete take of the first movement. What a difference from the previous day. The orchestra is really beginning to understand Tovey’s music. During the take Stefan and I are following the score and making notes of anything we aren’t satisfied with. After the take we have a discussion with George over the talkback and decide which sections need to be redone. This is the modus operandi we adopt for the rest of the recording. By lunch time the first movement is nearly finished.

Catarina Ek, the press officer for Malmö opera comes into the studio to take pictures and do some interviews. We are all feeling under pressure but with a smile and a lot of patience Catarina gets her pictures and interviews. There is a daily Classical music news programme broadcast on Swedish Radio called ‘Mitt I Musik’ and I had thought of getting in contact with the producer of the programme in Malmö. She, Meta Alm, contacted me first. She had been in a meeting just down the corridor from the studio and heard orchestral music she didn’t recognise and came into the control room to investigate. I was only too happy to be interviewed for ‘Mitt I Musik’ the following day.


Conductor George Vass rehearsing with the Cello section Malmö May 2005. Photograph by Stefan Klaverdal.

After lunch we finish the retakes on the first movement and start on the second movement, the Scherzo. By 3 o’clock and with 22 takes on the hard disk the Scherzo is finished. George decides to spend the last hour rehearsing the last movement with the strings. He knows there are some difficult passages and wants the strings to be prepared. Just as we are about to leave the leader of the basses points out that they have the contra bassoon parts for the last movement instead of the bass parts, and one of the viola players is missing a page.

Wednesday, 25th May. We arrive at the studio at 8.30 in order to print out the missing parts and are confronted with another problem. We normally only have 6 viola players. One has reported in sick with back trouble and another has to take her daughter to the hospital. Per-Ola has been trying to find replacements but viola players are hard to find. George says four players are not enough and decides to use the morning session for rehearsal and take an early lunch. During the lunch break Meta Alm interviews me for the afternoon’s edition of ‘Mitt I Musik’. Stefan provides a short extract from the first movement to be included in the programme. After lunch we now have five violas and can begin recording. The extra rehearsal has made all the difference. But this is the longest movement in the symphony and it takes the rest of the afternoon and 36 takes to complete it.

George is impressed by the high standard of playing. Tovey’s contrapuntal writing requires accurate phrasing and good balance and the orchestra is very receptive to George’s instructions. Tovey was a pianist and what might seem simple on the piano can be extremely difficult on a brass or woodwind instrument that occasionally needs to take a breath. The piccolo player continuously has to transpose down an octave because Tovey has written above the instrument’s range or its just too penetrating. We are very lucky that she is such a fine player. An ink blob in the handwritten score has found its way into the clarinet parts as a note and has to be removed.

After the session George and I walk back to the hotel for a rest. We have decided to take the train across the bridge to Copenhagen to drink a glass of real Danish beer. We walk down ‘Stroget’ the main pedestrian thoroughfare in the centre of Copenhagen stopping occasionally for a drink. It’s a warm sunny evening and George remarks on the bustling live in Copenhagen compared to the empty streets in Malmö. We finish the evening in a pub with a jazz duo playing old standards and elderly couples dancing to their heart’s content. Back to Malmö and bed.

Producer Peter Shore, engineer Stefan Klaverdal and conductor George Vass in the control room of studio 7, Swedish Radio Malmö May 2005. Photograph Stefan Klaverdal.

Thursday, 26th May. We are back in the studio by 10 o’clock and start work on the slow movement, ‘Canzona Dorica’. It is the shortest but by no means the easiest. George considers that Tovey’s changes of tempo from Adagio to Largo Maestoso to Andante and back to Adagio are interrupting the flow of the music and decides to keep relatively the same tempo all the way through. More wrong notes turn up in the Horn parts (surprise!). More ink blobs have turned into notes and even the violas and cellos are finding mistakes. I have discovered that wrong notes are more noticeable in slow movements. There is a lot of starting and stopping but we are getting there. The final section has the divided violins con sordino playing semi quavers and demi semi quavers sempre staccato e leggiermente, accompanying the woodwind and horns. We guess that Tovey wanted a shimmering effect in the strings but it is proving difficult to get. There is a similar passage in the opera ‘The Bride of Dionysus’ when Ariadne and Dionysus appear hand in hand out of the mist, which seems to work better. It is proving difficult to play this passage without the violins speeding up and leaving the woodwind behind. 40 takes later we’ve got it the way we want it and Stefan has plenty of material for editing. We had originally decided to include the Prelude and two other orchestral excerpts from the opera but have decided only to record the Prelude. George rehearses the Prelude and we call it a day. These four days have taken their toll on the orchestra and they have worked so hard.

Friday, 27th May. It’s the last day and the unknown faces we met on Monday have become familiar and friendly faces despite what we have put them through. George rehearses the Prelude from the opera and then we take a coffee break. During the break Stefan and I pop across the road to buy some bubbly wine. Then we start recording and after six takes we have everything we need. I ask the orchestra to humour an old man and give me one more complete take to round everything off. The tension, stress and emotion of the past few weeks suddenly catch up on me and I burst into tears. This wonderful, beautifully crafted and vibrant music can now be enjoyed by all and not suffer the fate of so much music left to collect dust hidden away on library shelves. Everybody assembles in the coffee room and I propose a toast to the orchestra, George, Stefan and last but not least Tovey who made it all possible. We go back into the studio and I help Stefan to pack up his equipment while George settles into an armchair exhausted and promptly goes to sleep! George Vass is a magnificent musician and conductor. His warmth and bubbling sense of humour pervades everything he does. His skill as a conductor goes to the heart of the music and brings out the best in the musicians he works with. Having himself been an orchestral player he knows what to say and when to say it and that making music with an orchestra is a communal activity of which the conductor is only a part.

In the evening George and I drive to the nearby city of Lund to hear a performance of Frank Martin’s Mass for ‘a cappella’ choir in the Cathedral. The choir is Lund’s Vocal Ensemble who has won much acclaim as well as many international choral competitions under their conductor Ingmar Månson. Stefan, our engineer is one of the basses and it is a fitting end to a fantastic week of music making.

I’m back in Stockholm and the emails are flying back and forth across the North Sea as I try to put together a biography and notes on the works we have recorded for the CD booklet. Martin Anderson with over twenty years as a publisher knows his job and like any good editor is worth his weight in manuscript paper. Stefan has started wading his way through all the takes and the results sound promising. There is still plenty left to do but a dream has come true. Donald Francis Tovey was regarded by his peers as a ‘musician’s musician’ and does not deserve to be remembered only as the author of ‘essays in musical analysis’ but as an outstanding British musician and composer in his own right.

Peter Shore 2005

The CD is due for release in October

A shortened version of this article will appear in the BMS Newletter.

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