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October 17th 2013, Beaufays, recording
Arvo Pärt’s STABAT MATER
Goeyvaerts String Trio (Kristien Roels, Kris Matthynssens and Pieter Stas) and three voices of Vox Luminis (Zsuzsi Toth, Barnabás Hegyi, Olivier Berten) are recording Aro Pärt’s Stabat Mater under the watchful ‘ears’ of the sound engineer Piotr Furmanczyk. And I, the author of the liner notes, was invited.
Chris and Piotr were standing outside the small Church of Beaufays’ abbey when I arrived. A cold wind brushed the leaves of the old chestnut trees. Chris introduced me to Piotr. It was one of the first dull grey days of autumn but the atmosphere was warm and welcoming.
It was a long drive to Beaufays, a small village about 10 km beyond Liege. The old Augustin abbey is privately owned now. The church is still used by the parishioners and musicians, apparently. Every building has a matching scale to the village.
The same cold of the wind lingered inside. The warmth of the heating system is not yet sufficient. I greeted Kristien and Pieter. In the center of the church Pieter’s stool, his cello and a methodical bush of microphones. Every single one had been meticulously put in its exact position as during the first recordings in July. I was invited to witness the final recordings of the Stabat Mater but I had no other function then to be there. So I listened, tried to read and wrote from time to time some sentences to capture the day in words…
Almost twelve o’clock. Sound check. The first bars of the Stabat Mater fill the emptiness of the old church. Piotr is upstairs in a small room surrounded by high tech and church paraphernalia. The trio plays in a triangle around the microphones and another Pieter (Peeters), a photographer is doing his job. The instruments sound warm and almost sigh… like when ‘the light is low and the nerves prick and tingle’…
The descending notes of the first bars swirl and then fall in the still chilly air like autumn leaves. The white and gilded saints witness undisturbed the sadness the music bears.
Later the tapes are run in the sound engineer’s secluded room. It has to be perfect: C major or A or… Recording sessions are compared; Piotr has a sharp ear.
The church cooled again. The heating is off because the system is too noisy; the ventilator would hum in the background. Recordings again. Piotr, the sound master rules here.
The best take of the trio’s introduction is chosen: sound, tempo, pitch and ‘niceness’. Carefully looking for perfection with the disagreeing tintinnabuli chords and how they resolve.
About 2 pm the singers join the trio. Greetings and then a lunch break. The heating system is on.
The cold abated. The trio and the singers are standing in an ellipse around the microphones facing each other. It is over 3 p.m. when I write this bit and the long introductory ‘amen’ fills the church. The acoustics are wonderful. The church is filled immediately with grandeur of the voices ringing and then the trio alone again. From heaven to earth or something.
Stabat mater. Piotr is satisfied and now they’re going to take the part they couldn’t record in july. The soprano soloes. Her voice resounds in silver and seems to hesitate a little before it dissolves. The most beautiful reverberation I’ve heard. They play and sing with some interruptions. Little mistakes, smiles but above this the concentration. For them, I do not exist, nothing exists outside the music. Fascinating to witness. I brought a book but cannot bring myself to read it. Even fragmented the music is compelling. Every take, they go for it, every time the focus and the music that takes hold of the space and the time around me.
The cold crept back in slowly. One only realizes this when one shivers. It will be five o’clock soon but this is not a day at the office and everyone but me is still absorbed. All I do is enjoying the music and write a little. Finally I’ve taken to my book; reading is my homework...
I wander between my reading ‘Badiou’, my inspiration for the following productions, and listening Pärt. Time has stopped being time. Until finally there is a break. The drone of the ventilator is infusing a necessary bit of warmth. Time for a cup of soup, tea or coffee. Time for a chat.
Challenge Records asked for interviews. They offer some relief. The singers have been interviewed in the early afternoon. Now it is time for the trio. We sit in the small room behind the church, the vestry. There is a table and some chairs. With all of us there, it is crowded. Pieter the photographer who also filmed the recordings, now captures the interview. Then I decided the sound engineer is to be interviewed as well. Piotr, gives his first conversation ever.
Then we listen to the recordings of the afternoon while darkness settles over Beaufays. The little room upstairs is warm and stuffed with the musicians and the apparatus for the recording. Is it perfect enough, where is who not accurate, doesn’t it sound sloppy? ‘26’ has to be re-recorded as a whole. Here and there it’s just one or two bars.
All the concentration again to get the ‘sound’. This pure intonation is unforgivable for the slightest slip of focus. There is a difference between the perfection and ‘sound’ but the dividing line is thin. Yet it works for me (now the only member of) the audience. It works even after hours of listening to the takes.
My computer ran out of power. I write this bit in November and I forgot when we ate but I didn’t forget the music. (Actually we picnicked in vestry.) I remember how the whole afternoon had been filled with a strange warm atmosphere and the divine music chopped up in parts. And every time again there was the same magical beauty. Anyway, I had lost track of time when the singers and the strings could finally please the sound engineer. And then they decided to play the whole Stabat Mater through. It had to bed done, so it felt.
Then around eight thirty in the evening, the Goeyvaerts String Trio and the Singers of Vox Luminis began a unique performance. The concentration was palpable. The church transformed into a space beyond earth yet too sad to be heaven. It was heavenly… I wish you were there.