Serenade: the 1996 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival CD Page 2
John Atkinson: I've been making recordings since the mid-'60s, initially as an adjunct to my musical activities. I was playing bass guitar in bands, playing violin in the youth orchestra; my mother bought me a mono Grundig tube tape recorder because I wanted to document what I was doing.
Wes Phillips: When did you begin to try to record performances in the most direct and natural way?
Atkinson: Not for a long time. When I gave up my scientific career in 1972 to become a professional musician, I did a lot of session work and, as a result, got very familiar both with multitrack studios and with the whole process of producing a record. But it wasn't until the end of the '70s, when my active musical life was fading out---basically as a result of the magazine I was working for taking too much of my time---that I started recording other people without my participating as a musician.
Phillips: It seems that, in the course of making the Stereophile recordings, you've been refining one particular recording philosophy.
Atkinson: Recording classical music splits into two opposed philosophies. One is a documentary approach, where the engineer captures as transparently and with as high a quality as possible the original sound and the image of the musicians. This involves using as few microphones as possible---ideally, just two. The other parallels rock-music production, where the engineers and producers use perhaps a microphone on every instrument and all the facilities of a multitrack studio to try to assemble a recorded sound that never actually existed in real life.
I want to preserve the live event in a documentary manner. The sound of an orchestra, or even the sound of a solo instrument like the piano, is so complex in its relationship to the sound of the hall in which it plays, that you cannot chop it into small pieces, then expect to put it all back together again with any degree of success. But if you adopt the documentary approach to capturing live sound, you then can have a good chance of not only re-creating the sonic image of the musicians, but also the feeling that the listener is actually in the hall where the performance took place. This is something that audiophiles pay a lot of money to obtain. But on the recordings they buy, a lot of the time the necessary information just isn't there.
You could say that I'm a purist in that I try to achieve that goal, but at the same time, to use all the modern technology that's available to produce a CD that is as professional, as tidy, and as comforting as a studio multitrack session. Nevertheless, it still is, as far as we can make it, an accurate documentary of what actually happened in the concert hall.
Phillips: But you're not above editing out an obvious clinker?
Atkinson: Oh, no. Because musicians are human. They do drop clams every now and again. I don't think it serves any purpose to preserve those for all eternity. But the better the musicians you have and the better the performances you're working with, the less editing has to be done. We have been very lucky with recording the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, both with the 1995 recording [released as Festival], and with this one, in that the musicians are all superb technicians. Julie Landsman, for example, the horn soloist on the Brahms Horn Trio, is just unbelievably secure in her mastery of an instrument that is extraordinarily hard to play, even for professionals, with the consistent perfection demanded by recordings. In the chapter on the horn in his 1981 book Anatomy of the Orchestra [Faber & Faber, ISBN 0-571-11552-7], for example, the English conductor Norman Del Mar wrote [pp.261-262]: "The constant bogey of cracked (or split) notes...is an agelong subject of controversy and cause of distress....It is important to recognize that fluffing need not be the result of faulty technique but may afflict even the greatest virtuoso on account of atmospheric or acoustic circumstances or the slightest untoward distraction...
"Indeed, an overcareful hornist is an anathema to his section and his orchestra. The very psychology that aims to steer clear of trouble through caution will rob him of his bravura, the sense of musical line and the extravert spirit, which has ever marked the greatest players, as well as landing him sooner or later into the very fallibility he so assiduously aims to avoid." On this CD Julie has that essential bravura---listen to her horn calls at the end of the Brahms, for example, or the triumphant triplets at the end of the Dvorák.