Working with Pollini

Christopher Alder

Recording an artist like Maurizio Pollini is probably rather more complex than the public imagines. First of all, the attention paid to practical details is immense. At any given time, Pollini’s tuner Angelo Fabbrini will have available several instruments suitable for recording, ranging in age from new to seven or eight years old. Pollini will already know most of them and have a current favourite. Depending on the CD programme – Chopin may require a different weight and colour than Bach or Beethoven – Fabbrini also sends a couple of alternatives from Italy to Munich’s Herkulessaal, the acoustically generous venue for almost all of Pollini’s solo recordings. The pianos arrive at least a day before sessions begin in order to settle.

On the first day Fabbrini comes in early to tune, regulate and voice all three instruments. It is an imposing sight to see the three gleaming concert grands standing centre stage, left and right. Pollini arrives in the early afternoon and tries out his preferred instrument. We record short extracts from the programme, loud and soft, staccato and cantabile. Pollini then comes up to our studio to listen and decide whether the instrument sounds right for this particular recording. His choice may be made swiftly, but nearly always there is still something Fabbrini is asked to work on – making the sound more or less brilliant, making the repetition lighter or heavier, regulating the odd note. Sometimes there is doubt – or just curiosity – about how another instrument might sound, so the balance engineer and I go down to help roll one piano aside and put another in its place.

After the choice is finalized we may spend hours dealing with microphone placement. Having marked the mics’ positions and heights, we will move them and mark new placements. Pollini plays and then comes up to the studio to listen and compare. It is a slow process. The variations are tiny – we are talking about moving a microphone, located some 5 metres away, only a single centimetre. As with many aspects of recording, the advantage of, say, a brighter sound may be achieved at the cost of reduced bass or increased reverberation. It depends on the hall. The final decision ultimately comes down to taste and mood, and it requires great concentration. Once the parameters are set, we are normally finished for the day.

When the actual recording begins, the working rhythm becomes fairly regular. Pollini will arrive in the late morning and spend a couple of hours practising in the artist’s room. He won’t go into the hall except to record, perhaps seeking to create the illusion of a concert atmosphere. After lunch, he returns and warms up briefly in the same room. At 4 pm sharp he descends to the Herkulessaal and starts to play.

Every artist approaches a recording differently. Most work their way slowly through the programme day by day, concentrating on a single piece or movement and moving on when they’re happy. Maurizio Pollini’s method is rather different. Unless there is a problem with the piano, he will play through the complete CD programme. Occasionally he repeats a movement, but that seldom happens in the first couple of days. He goes upstairs to change his shirt – this is warm work – and drink an espresso from our machine. During each pause Fabbrini is at work retuning and voicing the piano. Pollini discusses certain passages with me and tells me what he is after: for example, that there should be a sense of relaxation in tempo before a certain passage, but it should not be perceptible to the normal listener. These conversations may seem haphazard, but by the end of the sessions, somehow, we have gone through everything. He always asks for my comments. Over the years I’ve developed a feeling for what he wants and can give him some useful feedback (I like to think). Pollini will then go down and play through the programme again, come up, change, discuss – or talk about politics, a favourite subject – and then play one last time before leaving for dinner around 8 pm.

The next day, after the first complete run-through, Pollini will often ask to listen to certain pieces, and I’ll play him a take I feel is the best. I’m always fascinated by his commentary and criticism. He can be extremely tough on himself. If there are pieces to which he feels he hasn’t done justice, he will play these several times now before a change of shirt and a last complete run-through. Afterwards we again discuss where we are and what he will concentrate on tomorrow. That third and final recording day follows a similar pattern.

So is the recording finished now? Not at all, because there are always another four days of sessions a month or two later. In the meantime Pollini will be listening to takes, but even without hearing them he insists on this second recording period. I think he needs to be convinced that he has done everything in his power to produce an optimal result and never be left feeling he should have taken more time. We have discussed adding on more days to a single recording period, as this would save the considerable expense of another transport of equipment and instruments as well as the flights, but Pollini says that four days is the maximum he can play with complete freshness and concentration. Interestingly, after 30 years of recording with him, I can still detect no pattern in the takes that eventually make it on to a disc. Sometimes they all come from the first recording period, sometimes from the second; sometimes they are a mixture of the two.

This description of the nuts and bolts of recording does not begin to explore the question of inspiration, though that term may be misleading here. The enthusiasm that great artists bring to pieces they have played many, many times never ceases to amaze me; the almost manic care they take over details and nuances and the respect and wonder they feel for even familiar music seem almost miraculous. Their knowledge is humbling – Pollini will know every edition and have seen the autographs, if available, of every work he performs. For example, before recording Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier he studied all of Bach’s cantatas and chorales, because some of the themes are similar and this knowledge would provide a clue to appropriate tempi.

Of course, artists need to be stimulated to play well. Great artists become inspired remarkably often, without having to wait for the proverbial bolt of lightning. How do they achieve it? I think it is a simple matter. For them, and for us producers, recording is a genuine labour of love.

Christopher Alder has been Maurizio Pollini’s producer since 1986. He has made several hundred CDs for Deutsche Grammophon, winning ten Grammys for productions with Anne-Sophie Mutter, Claudio Abbado, Plácido Domingo, Thomas Quasthoff and Maurizio Pollini, among others.