I have been away for a long time. In finding my way back, Bach’s C Major Sonata was a pillar of strength, an example of how faith is the act of following the theme to the end, even when at first, all you have is a beginning. From there I found my way to the first notes of the E Major Partita and to Berlin, where I recorded them both direct-to-disc on LP.
My early recordings, Shostakovich Concerto no.1 and Sonata, and Bach D minor Partita and Bartok Solo Sonata, had in common a sense of grief and drama, the chaconne and passacaglia funereal rhythm: tragedy. My best work seemed to be repertoire that pulled me underground to feel connected. Orpheus. Or perhaps, if you’re reading Jean Shinoda Boden, Persephone. Human connection and empathising with pain is redemptive, but it began to feel like an emotionally exhausting vortex. To play the music of happier souls, I needed to take time out and become the engineer of my own inner life.
I started exploring beyond the violin world: tango, martial arts, ballet, lots of psychology and other reading, learning a new language, learning to cook, travelling without performing, indulging in shallow dreams and discovering their end, allowing myself to be an amateur for a while and try new things, as well as engaging in intense discussions with friends and artists of other disciplines. And I wrote. I wrote for days on end, and for years. Not for publication, more like the protagonist in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Mercifully, discovering this novel coincided with the end of the writing compulsion.
Something unexpected happened. Physically, emotionally, mentally, what I was learning away from the violin started to feed back into my practice. It was a surprise to me to discover that the torque of the ochos and giros in the Tango was the same torque, reversed, as in the punch starting from the floor in Choi Kwang-Do and that that same torque diminished would show me the way to refining my left hand shifts; that the core stability integral to the pliés and relevés of ballet would help me develop my principles of - and connection between - bow distribution and posture; or that the flow that great performances have, and the meditation on stage that Stanislawski describes at the end of An Actor Prepares, have parallels with the aims of the psychological methods created for serious criminals applying for early reintegration to society and which British Olympic athletes have been using for years to hone their focus with their “head-coach” Dr Steve Peters and Sarah Broadhead.
Through all this exploration I was quietly learning the C Major. I wrote my first blog post as I was analysing it. As I started to assimilate the new threads, interests, and passions, I started to feel whole. More than just a violinist, but a person with a growing and healthy internal culture, I realised that the C Major is what happens after the drama. It’s what happens when life carries on, with hope. In Bach’s manuscript it follows the Ciaccona directly. Bach meant for it to be the next step. In its stoic lyricism and constant stillness like the river in Herman Hesse’s Siddartha, I found joy.
So it was clear when I decided to return to recording, that the C Major and its sequential neighbour, the radiant E Major which I remembered once performing on a sunny evening under the warm limestone stalactites of the Divinity School of the Bodleian Library, would be the repertoire.
I chose to make an LP because I wanted my recording to be an object that people treasured and valued, a piece of physical sound, analogue art that is lovingly and meaningfully created, and honoured by the listener. I know there are listeners out there who listen like this, because sometimes they write to me, or tell me. I have so much respect for listeners who really listen, because it is an immense skill that can only be formed from a love of music, and through practice, humility and dedication.
These are the listeners envisioned by Rainer Maillard’s direct-to-disc record label Berliner Meister Schallplatten. BMS specialises in recording directly to an LP lathe in one take – in my case, a Sonata or Partita in its entirety - per side. That engraved LP is sent to a factory to be made into a metal version, and they print further vinyl LPs from that, which is what listeners buy. As a consequence of using this technique, BMS does not manipulate the sound beyond choosing and placing the equipment, nor do they master, nor edit. They also don’t put movement timings on the record sleeve. When I queried not writing the duration, Rainer replied, “We recommend listening to the long play, preferably with a glass of red wine”. Don’t rush. That was exactly how I envisaged my record being heard. Now for them to hear the long play, I had to play the long play.
It was my first time visiting Berlin. The bright, warm spring day felt like a celebration of what I was there to do. The sun shone through the Tiergarten onto the golden statue of Seigessäule and radiated out of Rainer’s face when he showed me the equipment with its microscope through which I could see the glowing filigree lines on the black freshly lathed Schallplatte. “That’s music!” he said, beaming quietly, “I still find it incredible, just amazing”. Upstairs he and producer Philip Krause showed me the Meistersaal, a glorious, gilt, wooden panelled chamber music concert hall built in 1910 with a warm, broad acoustic: a place of immense musical history. I felt honoured, joyful, and slightly awed to be there. I could see the balloon of Die Welt through the window.
The C Major was first. The fugue in this sonata is the longest fugue that Bach wrote, and he wrote it for the violin, an instrument that is not designed to play polyphonic fugues. Add to that that there are three other deep and exquisite movements all demanding dedication, that the sound in the iconic Meistersaal was being etched into eternity in real time, and a challenge emerges where the margin for error is close to zero, the emotional content requires uninterrupted meditation and focus, the physical challenge is complex and ever-present, the greats are staring at you - oh, and this is the first recording I’ve made in many years.
The beginning of each take was the hardest part. In the recording you can hear my breath, because breathing out engages the calming parasympathetic nervous system, and the first movement of the Bach, the Adagio, begins with two simple notes repeated, as close to breathing, or a heart beat, as a composer can write. It set the tempo. The psychological pressure of making the judgement on whether or not I was happy with this beginning, the first 30 seconds, was considerable. If I wasn’t, then I should stop, conserve my energy and start again. The standard duration of the C Major was on a knife-edge of being too long for the direct-to-disc technique. I had to omit the repeats in the fourth movement for it to fit, and Rainer, who is a virtuosic master-engineer, performed engineering acrobatics to keep the recording quality high with the right groove width.
After taking into account the time for sound check, breaks for lunch, recovery after each performance, and note taking, there would only really be time for about five takes, after which I would be exhausted anyway, and I had to be happy with the result. Every wasted take meant throwing away a Schallplatte. It meant retuning, resetting, re-preparing. A new performance. It felt consequential. Added to this, we were using a decades-old lathe for which they no longer make spare parts and which, though its longevity is a testament to its old-world quality, failed occasionally. By contrast, the custom-made microphones were three days old, flown fresh from San Francisco.
Intimidating? I had faith. The music gave me that. The music and its message was the reason I was there, and it gave me courage and a light heart. Producers Philip Krause and Lukas Kowalski were kind yet attentive listeners, giving gentle critique inbetween takes, and the sessions flowed. It was one of the most exciting and fulfilling musical experiences of my life. Rainer said it was the longest direct-to-disc recording ever made.
I had turned up to the sessions on spec, with no record label attached. Infinitely generous, Rainer invited me onto his label BMS during a sunny lunch break on the terrace of Caruso’s. I couldn’t believe this day could get any better. We talked about the cover. I wanted something that had the feeling of mark-making, because that’s exactly what the act of recording direct-do-disc is: mark-making. I play, and under Rainer’s scrutiny, the lathe marks. So I was delighted when he expressed admiration for the work of my cousin, the fine artist Kate Palmer, and that she later agreed to our using it. Kate’s work is subtle, intense, sensitive, intuitive, and exact. Her work has rhythm. It reads like music. It feels very close to my experience of the Bach and recording direct-to-disc. I love her generosity in letting me have it on the cover.
Just before I returned to record the E Major for Side B, I was waiting on a bench in a train station. A Buddhist in red came and sat next to me. He had been studying since he was a boy in Tibet. I later found out that his name was His Holiness the twelfth Gangri Karma Rinpoche. I was feeling a little lost. He had a belly laugh that can only be described as whole-hearted joy. I had been practising in a medieval Kent church in preparation for recording the E Major in Berlin, and even with the overwhelming beauty of the silent church I was finding it hard to match the E Major’s generosity. It is so easy to think of joy as something nebulous and flighty. But birds are fighting for life too. Some of them fly so hard that they have to take mini rests mid-flight to avoid a heart attack, which is why their trajectories are wavy. They are impossible, just like bees. And yet there they are. Listening to the laughter of the monk I understood that genuine joy comes from our whole bodies, from the disputed cold landscape of a beloved country, from faith in exile, from kind strangers, from a smile, from our full effort and from our breath. He helped me find the first note.
I have faith that you will listen to the long play with an open heart, and a glass of wine.