Behind the scenes: Q&A, Recording the CBSO

In June 2019, the CBSO was reunited with former Principal Guest Conductor Edward Gardner, for a Chandos recording session of Schubert’s second and sixth symphonies. 

We caught up with the session producer Brian Pidgeon and Ralph Cousins, sound engineer and Chandos MD, to ask them about the recording process and more...


What are your roles?

RC: I trained in the sound side of things - so engineering is my background - but it’s a family business so I’ve moved into running the company as well. As the MD of Chandos, all the productions and projects that we do come through me - we have meetings with artists and conductors and we plan for the future with projects which work for both of us.  These days, it’s getting tougher to find projects that work for the both commercial world - for selling products - and also for the artist that does what they need.  So there’s always a balance to be had.

BP: I used to be the General Manager of the Liverpool Philharmonic, and the BBC Philharmonic. It’s lovely to come back to Town Hall - somewhere where I grew up in the CBSO’s percussion section in the early 70s with Louis Fremaux. We made a lot of records here with EMI in those days. My job as the producer is basically to be the first set of ears on the performance – and it’s quite often the case that what a conductor hears and senses in the hall can sound totally different over a pair of loudspeakers.   It can seem slower, for example – quite often Ed (Gardner) will listen back and say “it didn’t feel that slow onstage!” Also, I listen out for bad intonation, the players not being quite together - things like that. It’s a resonant hall in there and it can sometimes be difficult for the conductor to actually hear the details - whereas in the control room, when we’re listening through all the different microphones on each section, we hear it far better.  So it’s just putting that over because there isn’t always the chance for conductors to listen back to every take.  I’ll just say for example, “we need to cover bars 4-8 again” and of course when we do those extra takes, making sure they’re at exactly the same tempo - otherwise editing everything together can be a nightmare! It’s also important for the Producer to control the whole session. We have four 3-hour sessions to do the whole disc, and we have to make sure that we get that disc done in 2 days, so we need to be efficient with the recording time.

What’s behind the decision to record in Town Hall?

RC: Town Hall is an Old Victorian Hall, and it’s shoe-box shaped which is perfect acoustically for all sorts of orchestral concerts and recordings. We always try to go for that type of hall because it has a natural acoustic which works well - the hall is long, so the sound gets away to the back and you don’t get this claustrophobic, “dry” feeling on the stage. You get a natural ambiance, especially for the strings, which is very important.

How does a recording project like this come about?

RC: The Schubert recordings that we are doing now follow on from Mendelssohn ones that we started some years ago. Mendelssohn worked so well in this hall - that’s part of the whole thing, to record the CBSO in the old Town Hall where Mendelssohn premiered some of his works. So we thought “what shall we do after this?” and Schubert was the natural progression, with the same size orchestra and the nice acoustics at Town Hall - that’s how we got to this point.

BP: There are exclusive artists for Chandos, of whom Ed Gardner is one – that started when he was the CBSO’s Principal Guest Conductor.

RC: Yes, so the releases have to encompass what the conductor wants to do with their career, at the same time as what we need for our catalogue; we try to combine those two things with the best possible instrumental forces and schedules. Sometimes there are things which an artist will want to do that don’t work for us, and the other way around - so there is always negotiation involved. But this Schubert was a natural progression from doing the Mendelssohn in this environment.

BP: Actually Ralph, you go back a long way with Chandos - your first recording was with Neeme Järvi wasn’t it?

RC: Yes, in 1982 we did the Weber Clarinet Concertos with the CBSO and Janet Hilton. That was the first time we recorded in Town Hall.

BP: And then the Walter Weller...

RC: ... yes, all the Beethoven Symphonies as well. That was done in this hall too, but it didn’t look like it does now!

What are you enjoying about this current project?

RC: The interesting thing about this Schubert series is that it’s not just the symphonies – we’re adding in different couplings too. We’ve got overtures as we go along, and also at the end we’ll have some songs on the last disc. We’re trying to make each disc a little more interesting than just symphonies - which everybody else has done anyway! The overtures are not over-recorded, either.

BP: I spent a lot of time studying all the old recordings and I find it quite surprising how the early symphonies (that aren’t played very often) tend not to be so well presented on disc. So there’s a real opportunity for us to do them well!

How many microphones are you using in this session? And what are the technical challenges of recording an orchestra?

RC: I’ve got a total of 18 for this – it’s quite a small orchestra so for a bigger one you’d need more.

I think the biggest challenge with recording orchestras is that you’ve got to capture the total dynamics - they can be extremely quiet or extremely loud, so you have to capture that range. Secondly you need to get the clarity and balance of the different departments. Often a conductor will come in and say for example “well I can hear that but I can't hear this” or “I need more strings” - getting it all balanced is key. It’s more critical with an orchestra than it is with a chamber group to get that clarity.

BP: And we try to capture the excitement of the performance too - I always remember Neeme Järvi used to say he loved the “Chandos sound”.  It’s a mixture of being analytical about the balance of sections, as well as capturing the big, exciting sound of the concert hall and orchestra together that makes it work.

Is there anything particularly difficult about recording in Town Hall?

BP: Timpani are difficult in this hall, because there is this hard wall around the back of the stage which just bounces the sound straight back - when we did Schubert’s Eighth Symphony the timpani were right against the wall and the sound “boomed” like mad. We brought them forward for this current session – being able to change the positioning of the instruments onstage really helps.

RC: Also, sometimes the hall can “favour” certain frequencies over others, it doesn’t always sound completely even, so that can cause problems for us too.

How was it working on the Mendelssohn recordings with Edward Gardner and the CBSO?

BP: I thought it was great. Funnily enough, the Italian Symphony was just chosen on Radio 3’s “Building a Library”, much to my surprise!

RC: And the most recent disc, which was all the overtures on their own, is getting air-play all over the place – I think people just love to hear the short overtures rather than whole symphonies. Classic FM love it too!

BP: It’s very good, I have to say - I think Ed (Gardner) is very proud of the overture disc, especially the last four that we did, and the one with the organ involved.

RC: The whole Mendelssohn project was a great for us, especially to do it here too, where there is such connection between composer and the hall.

How do you decide which symphonies go on which disc? Why are they not always in order?

BP: Really, it’s just a way of fitting them onto the disc!

RC: But if there’s a choice between two or three combinations that could fit on the disc then it comes to down to things like the keys and the mood of pieces - whether this symphony works with that symphony, and so on. If there is no choice, it purely comes down to the timing of what will fit on a CD.

Schubert Vol.2 was released last month, in March 2020.

Originally published in Music Stand, Autumn 2019 edition - an exclusive magazine for CBSO Members and Package Bookers.