Paul Myers (Director, CBS International Masterworks) and Bob Auger (Bob
In fall 1974, in one of the most complex sessions London has hosted, Arnold Schoenberg's Gurrelieder was recorded by CBS for stereo and eventual quadraphonic surround release. The musical, production and engineering background is covered, from both stereo and quadraphonic viewpoints.
We were listening to a final playback of the two-track mix and, as the orchestra swelled to yet another huge climax (and our eyes scanned the vu meters nervously), Bob Auger smiled and said: Well, it certainly sounds expensive. I suppose this was a slightly less than respectful comment, but I am sure you will understand our reaction. There seemed nothing more to add at the end of a long and tremendously difficult project - at times frustrating, at times awe-inspiring, but always exhilarating. And we had reached the penultimate stage: all that remained was to see whether the cutting engineers could transfer the information faithfully to a disc, despite sides lasting 29 and 30 minutes.
Schoenbergs Gurrelieder, a work just short of two hours and scored for six soloists, a gigantic orchestra and a battery of mixed choirs, must be one of the most challenging projects for any producer or engineer. Because of the size of the forces involved, it is seldom performed (although London has enjoyed two Promenade Concert performances, the last of which was the highlight of the 1974 summer season). However, perhaps because of these concerts and certainly in honor of the 100th anniversary of the composers birth, a previously empty catalogue has seen the appearance of three recordings of Gurrelieder: a recent EMI issue, a reissue from Deutsche Grammophon in their Privilege series, and the new CBS production. The other recordings are radio broadcasts, transcribed to discs (although I understand the DG version was compiled from several rehearsal and broadcast tapes). In the case of the CBS recording, the decision was taken about two years ago to make the first studio recording of the work, to appear in both stereo and quadraphonic surround versions.
At the risk of offering superfluous information, let me add a few words of musical background to the piece. Schoenberg originally composed a set of songs after poems by the Danish botanist/poet/novelist Jacobsen and entered them in a competition in 1899. He was very short of money and, despite the fact that the songs did not win the hoped-for prize money, the composer decided to expand upon the original material. He set the entire Jacobsen cycle, re-scored if for the enormous forces mentioned, and added a few more sections of his own. The work was composed by 1901, but he only worked sporadically on the scoring, which was not completed until 1911. The première was given in Vienna in 1913, to a very enthusiastic audience and, although he was present, Schoenberg apparently took no great pleasure in the reception. He was already composing in his new serial style, and receiving little praise or encouragement. Gurrelieder looked back to his earlier, discarded Romantic style. Its Wagnerian echoes, harmonically and even melodically, its use of leitmotivs and its great washes of sumptuous sound are almost diametrically opposed to the music that followed.
Gurrelieder is, perhaps, one of the last great Romantic masterpieces (and anyone who examines the score, perhaps adding the extraordinary analysis of the work by Alban Berg, will agree that it is a veritable masterpiece by a 26-27 year-old composer), but I have always suspected that, the huge forces notwithstanding, it would have become far more famous and far more frequently performed had it been composed by any other man. For Schoenbergs later music has long struck terror in the hearts of average concertgoers, whose tastes fun (and why not?) to more easily distinguishable melodies and readily familiar harmonies. His music may inspire and delight professional musicians, but its austere dissonances dismay audiences and empty box-offices. Only Verklärte Nacht, another early work from the same period as Gurrelieder, has attracted listeners with its instantaneous beauty, and there are one or two other, lesser-known pieces. But most Schoenberg, early or not, is generally avoided in case it proves to be similar to the last, atonal works: craggy, unrelenting pieces like the opera Moses And Aaron. I am not suggesting either that, if you like early Schoenberg, you will every like late Schoenberg, but hope that, when confronted by an unfamiliar work by him, listeners will be tempted to check the date of the composition or see whether it bears a low opus number.
To return to the recording, perhaps the best way to sum up the major problem is to show what sort of an orchestra we used. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, suitably augmented, included 24 first violins, 20 second violins, 16 violas, 12 cellos, ten basses and four harps. In other words, the strong section alone was as large as the average London orchestra. To this were added 25 woodwinds, 12 horns, 15 brass, two sets of timpani and a percussion section requiring ten players. The mixed choirs numbered well over 300, and the total number of musicians involved came to just under 500. The figures are not produced to dazzle, but point to a basic recording problem. Readers of this magazine understand the problems of reproducing the dynamic range of a normal orchestra for records, and the consequent compression of that real range to reproduce a natural recorded range, so I will not waste space with long explanations and diagrams. Suffice to say that I like to compare recording techniques with photography. An 80-piece orchestra can be reproduced on a record (or a tape) with the same degree of accuracy and fidelity to its natural sound as a 2 1/2 x 3 1/2 in snapshot of the Grand Canyon reproduces a 300-mile hole in the ground. We accept that each suggests what it reproduces rather than actually reproduces it. The Gurrelieder makes use of an orchestra almost twice the size of a normal symphony orchestra (and the massed choirs), but there are many times when the singer is accompanied by little more than a string quartet of first chair players, or a small section of the orchestra. Somehow, the recording must convey (at a reasonable level) both the effect of the small group and of the full group, without asking the listener to sit next to his amplifier, suitably raising and lowering the volume controls. (Only recently, I read a review of one of the other recordings in which the critic made this particular comment, suggesting that this was the only way one could really hear the work. I hope we have persuaded him otherwise.)
The next problem was to find a hall that could accommodate an orchestra and a choir of this size and still lend itself to recording with some sort of ambient acoustic. Most London halls, filled with these forces, would become totally dry and unflattering. A natural choice was the Albert Hall (where CBS recorded the Verdi Requiem with Leonard Bernstein and the London Symphony Orchestra) but it was unavailable for the period, and we spent some harrowing weeks searching for anything from a cathedral to an aircraft hangar. Finally, Bob Auger came up with his own discovery the Methodist Central Mission in West Ham, a large and superb hall, very similar in design to Kingsway Hall (but cleaner), with a circular auditorium, a domed ceiling, and a gallery that could accommodate up to 500 singers. The hall proved to be one of the best I have ever worked in, with a glowing combination of great clarity and airiness, and I am quite sure that, like all fine recording halls, it would be just as excellent for recording a solo piano or a string quartet. Even with the forces we used, there was additional space, giving us the clear, open sound we wanted.
Faced by that frightening number of players, I elected to record the work on 16 tracks. I know that engineers will argue from now until the end of recording the relative merits of multiple-track recording (and, when all is said and done, there was a time when we had to put it all on one mono track), but I favor making use of whatever new technology is available. As long as the final balance is satisfactory, it really makes no difference whether a classical recording is made on two tracks or 24, and I believe that the use of the Dolby system (on a well maintained desk) will achieve sound of the highest possible quality. Multiple-track recording permits one a second chance for the ideal balance during the remixing sessions, especially as there is never enough sessions time during a recording session for the ideal number of musical takes and balance rehearsals. With the support of a 16 track tape, and the possibilities of delicate rebalancing where necessary, a producer can undertake a work of this size and stature with an extra degree of confidence. (Perhaps I should add, as a happy afterthought, that when it came to remixing the 16 tracks, there were very few occasions when we had substantially to alter our original settings. The 16 slider settings on the Neve console made a straight line, which is no small tribute to the excellently modulated and controlled tapes that Bob Auger created during the sessions.) The further advantage of 16 tracks was that they enabled us to split the very large woodwind section into two tracks (needless to say, the strings had one track per section), instead of attempting to balance all of a physically widespread section on a single track.
The track layout (selected by Bob, who also
undertook the remix sessions) was as follows:
was a recording for surround quadraphonic sound, it was necessary to
rearrange the orchestra in such a way that certain sections could be folded round to the back speakers
in the final four track remix, and I am grateful also that Pierre Boulez
agreed to face an unconventional orchestral setup. Although the listener
hears the work in surround sound, I believe it is wrong to expect the
conductor to manage a surround orchestra (although it has
been done, with many accompanying headaches). Therefore, borrowing a
leaf from pages of pop recording sessions, we worked on the principle
that loud instruments should not play into the microphones being used
by soft instruments. (I remember seeing many pop orchestra sessions,
in which the violins sat at the back, winds in front of them, and brass
in the front, to achieve the same effect of separation.)
- Paul Myers
- Bob Auger
Sound at the Stereo Society:
and Music (1974)
To Four Sides
of the Moon
To the Production
of Quadrafile (2001)
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