The sun was baking the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in early September. Inside the school’s new, state-of-the-art recording studio, two musicians who had known each other for decades but had never recorded together were cooking before the microphones in music by Brahms. Recording producer Elaine Martone, taking a momentary break between takes, could hardly restrain herself: “They were smokin’ great things in there,” she exclaimed.
Cellist Zuill Bailey and pianist Awadagin Pratt were immersed in day two of a four-day project to record the two iconic cello–piano sonatas, transcriptions of seven songs, and Sonatensatz, which a twenty-year-old Brahms composed as the scherzo of a violin sonata with other movements by Robert Schumann and Albert Dietrich in honor of Joseph Joachim. As the Oberlin sessions unfolded, the musicians rode a roller coaster of emotions, not all of them by Brahms. The process proved repetitive and wearying, but also — eventually — exhilarating. Toward the final days, they found themselves playing longer and longer takes, stopping only occasionally to fix errant notes, intonation or rhythms or to debate the weight and shape of a phrase.
For extroverted, Virginia native Bailey and the soft-spoken, Pittsburgh-born Pratt, the experience was the culmination of a journey that began at a ping-pong table at the Meadowmount School of Music in 1986 (where Pratt was enrolled as a violinist). They ran into each other several years later at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore but didn’t make music together until 1998. “It was so deep when we started playing together that we started laughing,” says Bailey, professor of cello at the University of Texas at El Paso and a rising star in the cello world. “Our banter, our performances, our connection is very inspired. It feels comfortable.”
Not that these practiced recording artists were always at ease throughout the Oberlin sessions. Although they’d spent a few days rehearsing in Cincinnati, where Pratt is on the faculty at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, in the studio they encountered typical distractions and frustrations — a creaking chair or a piano needing adjustment.
The desire to honor details, nuances and arching lines in the sonatas kept Pratt and Bailey on compulsive alert. “Now I’m paranoid about that,” Bailey announced when a lyrical phrase didn’t quite register to his liking. After an extended take that riveted everyone in the control booth, Pratt earned praise from recording engineer Bruce Leek: “Awadagin, awesome. You don’t take any prisoners.”
Bailey was eager to make the Brahms disc with Leek, who had helped him with a disc of Bach solo cello suites. For those sessions, Leek brought his own equipment to Oberlin, rather than relying on the studio’s imposing new technology, and insisted upon securing “the best production team” — Martone and Robert Woods, a leader in digital recording since 1977. Multi-Grammy winners and married couple Woods and Martone recently created Sonarc Music, a consulting, project management and producing company.
Released on Telarc, the Brahms disc is the first commercial recording made in Joseph R. Clonick Hall in the Oberlin Conservatory’s Bertram & Judith Kohl Building, which opened in 2009 to house the school’s jazz studies, music history and music theory departments. The studio, intended both for jazz and classical recording, was chosen after conservatory dean David H. Stuhl invited Woods to test-drive the new venue, whose acoustics were designed by Dana Kirkegaard. “It has an incredibly clear, vibrant sound,” says Bailey. “I’ve never recorded in a recording studio before. I’m usually looking out into a [concert] hall, where you feel the vastness. In a hall, you get something back of what you’re giving. In here, we’re trusting.”
Woods is also impressed with the facility, which blocks exterior sound completely and whose air-conditioning system — contending in early September with ninety-plus temperatures outside — is “dead quiet.” But he says some modifications will be necessary before the Brahms disc is released: “We will add a very high quality of reverberation space to the sound. It has to open up and back off a little bit. It’s a little too in-your-face.”
Pratt, who can be heard on several solo discs on EMI Classics, had a chance to sample the studio when he traveled to Oberlin in July to choose a piano for the recording. He was given two Steinway options: a 16-year-old New York instrument that had recently been completely redone and a new Hamburg that needed to be broken in. Pratt opted for the domestic version, though he never became entirely smitten. “Both pianos, to my ear, are incredibly bright. We had a technician try to temper that.”
Bailey and Pratt spent a decade performing together before they decided to make a recording. The music? “We said Brahms at the same time,” notes Bailey, who was determined to make the disc something different. “A lot of cellists just record the sonatas. There are six songs known by Brahms as transcriptions that were published by Simrock. The key changes are hard on the cello. We’re adding another song — Op. 70, No. 2 (“Lerchengesang”) — and Sonatensatz, which I don’t believe has been recorded on cello. I grew up with it. My sister plays it on violin.”
On the second day of their Oberlin expedition, Pratt and Bailey were still largely in take-after-take mode, though they’d had a brief respite from the grind the previous day, when they “put the music aside and played from memory,” said Bailey. “We just let it go. I want us to play, because that’s what we do. When we try to put things together and over-analyze, that’s not what we do.”
Pratt agreed, discussing the process in terms that indicate he and Bailey view the studio as a concert platform, despite the absence of an audience (not counting, with all due respect, the recording team). “We like it to be vital and alive onstage,” said Pratt. “We might go onstage and hear something else. We trust each other and work with it. A phrase can go ‘A’ way or ‘B’ way or ‘C’ way. We know we’re recording, so we try to keep things fairly consistent.”
They’ve had more than a little assistance in this regard from Brahms, who wrote the cello sonatas two decades apart. Both are towering scores and cornerstones of the cello repertoire, and Bailey and Pratt are following a formidable group of artists. Jacqueline Du Pre/Daniel Barenboim, Gregor Piatigorsky/Arthur Rubinstein, Mstislav Rostropovich/Rudolf Serkin, Janos Starker/György Sebök and Yo-Yo Ma/Emanuel Ax all made penetrating recordings of the sonatas to reveal the resilient eloquence of the music.
For Bailey, the opportunity to document his thoughts on these works, with Pratt as impassioned colleague, is a privilege. “Brahms’ chamber music is so dense,” the cellist says. “The inner voices are many times the magic. I’m always shocked by the blatant beauty of the music.”
Bailey is looking forward to more blatant beauty: His next project is the Dvořák Cello Concerto, which he’ll record in performance when he makes his debut with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under Jun Märkl in February. Said one composer about this Dvořák score: “Why on earth did I not know that one could write a cello concerto like this? Had I only known I would have written one years ago.”
That composer’s name was Brahms.
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.