Listen Magazine FEATURE
Banging Out The Brahms
Joshua Bell, Jeremy Denk and Steven Isserlis go to work.
By Ben Finane
“WHAT’S HAPPENING HERE,” producer Adam Abeshouse tells me during a break in the action, “is we are listening in three tenses: what’s been done, what we’re doing, and what we’re going to do.”
On screen, I watch violinist Joshua Bell, pianist Jeremy Denk and cellist Steven Isserlis in the grand studio a floor below at New York’s DiMenna Center for Classical Music as they discuss the Brahms Piano Trio No. 1 [aka Opus 8] between takes of passages of same. “My accompaniment figures had the right non-invasiveness there,” Bell offers to the trio. Isserlis nods, and the two have a brief exchange on the musical accents.
“Let’s play the opening,” Abeshouse suggests over his mic, “since lots of good things have been happening.” The group — a pick-up trio of sorts, with Isserlis the odd man out — has located a groove. Having never played this work together, they are listening, adjusting and revisiting. Abeshouse follows along with the score as they play, writing the number of the take, then a check where it’s good, a minus where it isn’t, and a big circle when it’s awesome. They nail the next passage. “That just saved me a bunch of edits,” Abeshouse says to me. “Yay.”
“We’re all perfectionists. I could literally sit there all day, saying ‘one more...’”
“Having a producer that you trust is very important,” Bell, who is music director of The Academy of St Martin in the Fields, tells Listen weeks later over the phone from Israel. “We’re all perfectionists. I could literally sit there all day, saying ‘one more...’ Eventually, you have to move on, but the knowledge that it’s going to be permanent makes that a struggle.
“In the studio,” Bell continues, “you can always do better — you have an ideal in your head, but it’s never going to be fully there. There is a point where you start getting diminishing returns and you lose the energy. You have to be careful, especially in a huge piece like the Brahms, that you don’t lose the scope — get tied down in the details and lose the big picture. For Brahms and Beethoven particularly, it’s all about the big picture, the way the story unfolds over the course of forty minutes. So one can get obsessed with that, and that’s not such an enjoyable process for me: I prefer to perform it.”
‘You have to be careful, especially in a huge piece like the Brahms, that you don’t lose the scope — get tied down in the details and lose the big picture.’
Bell fell in love with the original version (1853–54) of the Brahms Opus 8 (as opposed to the more popular 1889 revision) after Isserlis brought it to his attention. “It’s very much more heart-on-sleeve — there’s a lot of love in it and vulnerability. The later version is so refined and wonderful, but more the Brahms with the beard we all know and love.”
If making the donuts can be a drag, the finished product can be well worth it. The resulting album, For the Love of Brahms (Sony Classical), includes the Brahms Opus 8 as well as, with The Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the Brahms Double Concerto and the second movement of Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor.
“When you play chamber music with two other guys that are really inspiring,” says Bell, it keeps you inspired, too.”
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, an award-winning quarterly print magazine published by Steinway & Sons. Subscribe here.