I've never listened to Suzuki book recordings just for pleasure - not until now. If I'm honest, the old recordings sounded a bit to me like "March of the Method Book." Very pedagogical and "correct," but where was the music?
Recently the bar has been seriously raised - first with Hilary Hahn's 2020 recordings of Suzuki Violin Volumes 1-3; then just this month the International Suzuki Association and Alfred Music released Violin Volumes 4-6 -- recorded by Augustin Hadelich (Click here to get those recordings).
As a Suzuki teacher, it's hard for me to imagine a better scenario: two world-famous, Grammy-winning, musically exceptional, technically virtuosic and beloved violinists making these recordings.
Indeed, here is the music, the ease, the beauty, the artistry. Once I started listening to the just-released recordings of Books 4-6, I couldn't stop. Listening to Hadelich and pianist Kuang-Hao Huang play the "Adagio" from Vivaldi's Concerto in G minor (from Book 5) was spellbinding. And the joy! Listen to Hadelich play the Fiocco "Allegro" from Book 6:
Of course, these recordings are made for a practical purpose: to allow violin students to listen to the pieces they are learning to play in the Suzuki books. In order to truly be helpful to students, the recordings had to reflect the books, demonstrating the same fingerings, bowings, dynamics and phrasing indications. The recordings also contain piano accompaniment tracks, for students to play along.
As such, both of the new recordings literally had to meet an International Suzuki Association committee's rigorous standards before being approved for distribution as the official Suzuki recordings.
But clearly in both of these cases, the musicians worked to uphold their own personal standards as artists, in addition to the unusual requirements for use as a pedagogical tool.
Recently I spoke to Hadelich about the newly-released recordings and what it was like to make them.
"Many things made this recording quite challenging," Hadelich said. "One of them was the requirement that the recording goes along with the books, so it has to match that. And at the same time, I wanted to play the music in a way that brings to life all the things I care about the most in that music: the character, the lightness of the music, and the joy of making music. It's particularly important for children who hear these recordings to be musically inspired. It's not always fun to practice the violin, especially in the beginning. It can be tough work. I had this experience myself when I was a child - I didn't enjoy practicing too much, until I heard recordings that inspired me. So I wanted this to be motivating - a recording that makes them feel excited about playing."
The recordings took place in April 2021 "in Boston, where I also recorded the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, the Paganini 24 Caprices and Bohemian Tales," Hadelich said. "I know the engineer extremely well - Antonio Oliart - because we've done so many projects together. I knew that I could totally rely on him. When we discuss things, there is already an understanding from all the projects we've done together."
Chicago-based pianist Kuang-Hao Huang collaborated with Hadelich for the recordings. "I met him years ago when I was doing a recital for the Stradivari Society," Hadelich said. "I really liked working with him, and we hit it off." Not only that, but also Huang's children used the Suzuki method in their own musical studies, and for years he accompanied them. "So he knows the Suzuki books inside out," Hadelich said. "He's also fun, and he's a good sport. He knew what sort of recording we were looking for." The piano part had to be beautiful, but it also had to be able to stand alone as an accompaniment track.
And for that reason, they had to record in separate rooms - so that the piano part could be teased out and used alone as an accompaniment track.
"In that nice studio in Boston, there is the big room which is wonderful -- that's where he was," Hadelich said. "I was in the little isolation sound booth, where it's sound-proof, and I could see him through the glass. We could look at each other, but we could hear each other only through headphones."
This challenge become even more extreme when a third track was added - for the Bach Double.
"In some ways, the Bach Double was the hardest track of all," said Hadelich, who recorded both the Violin 1 and Violin 2 parts. "Playing Bach with yourself is challenging. With two violinists playing, there is so much subconscious back-and-forth communication that happens -- you don't even realize it. One person gets a little softer, and the other one reacts. There is all this chamber music communication."
I first recorded the second violin part together with Kuang-Hao. Then a few days later, I recorded the first part, listening to the second part through the headphones," Hadelich said. "But when you hear it through headphones, as opposed to hearing it for-real in the same room, you don't balance with the other voice the same way. You don't react, you don't make certain adjustments the same way. When putting it together later on, it was surprisingly difficult to get it to sound like two people playing chamber music. It sounded like two people who were completely ignoring each other and playing at the same time, but kind of didn't go together! So that was the challenge, to find the takes and the moments where it sounded like it really was working together, like what Bach Double is supposed to be."
Hadelich found himself drawing on the experiences he had during the pandemic, when he made a lot of video recordings on his own, at home. "I was accompanying myself on the piano and playing violin; or playing a violin duo with myself," Hadelich said. "In a way, those videos prepared me for this Suzuki project. I would play the violin part, already thinking about the other violin part. Or I would play the violin part thinking about the piano part, and then putting it together. I learned a lot of interesting and strange things about musical timing, when it feels right and when it doesn’t work — sometimes the tiniest details, like the placement of a single note, can change how the entire phrase feels."
"So when editing Bach Double, I sometimes suddenly knew how it would work - use this take and put it together with that, or delay one note in the piano part slightly, and suddenly the whole phrase makes sense. I had learned these things two years ago that helped me navigate this complex project," he said. And yet, editing the Bach Double required a whole new level of detail work. “The dynamics of every phrase had to be balanced manually, to some extent. This one three-minute track probably took as long to edit and mix as it would usually take to edit a whole CD!" Hadelich said.
Hadelich actually came to this project as a violinist who was not taught using the Suzuki method. "I actually did not start with Suzuki -- unlike most of my friends!" Hadelich said, laughing. "My first teacher was my father." His father was an amateur cellist, whose mother had been a violin teacher. "When he started teaching me, he wanted to do everything differently from what she did. In fact, some aspects of his teaching were actually similar to Suzuki."
"Before Suzuki came along, violin was mostly taught ... kind of by force!" Hadelich said. "Kids were terrorized until they got better, and it's really not a good way to teach music."
Suzuki saw that in other music traditions, such as folk music, beginners hear people who can play and then they imitate and learn from them - much in the way that they learn language.
"I think that's the most natural way of learning how to play, and the Suzuki method is kind of based on that," Hadelich said. "This is all pretty intuitive, but for some reason it had gotten lost."
Before teaching Hadelich, his father had taught his older brother, who played the cello. His brother learned everything by hearing and imitating, but they waited a little too long to add the music-reading. "So in my case, he added in the reading pretty early and emphasized it more, which was probably smart," Hadelich said. His father also introduced positions at an earlier stage. "He was thinking about these kind of issues right away, about how the hand was set up, so that it will be possible to go up in positions, and to go up pretty early," he said.
As for the repertoire, Hadelich did start with familiar folk songs, but not "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" - they used German folk songs like “Hänschen Klein." He did learn the Vivaldi A minor Concerto, but as for the three movements from Concertos Nos. 2 and 5 by Friedrich Seitz - he had never played them.
"I actually didn't know Seitz at all - I had heard the name and I knew that they were in the books, but I had never played them," Hadelich said. "I had played La Folia, but I played it later, the Corelli version. The Handel Sonatas I knew, but also I learned those a bit later."
So did he like those Seitz concertos?
"They're really fun!" he said. "I particularly liked the G major third movement that is at the start of Book 4 -- it's really funny and charming. It went around in my head constantly, after I recorded it. I couldn't stop thinking about the theme."
The Vivaldi A minor concerto inspired a lot of discussion about tempo, particularly since the version that appears in the Suzuki books is not Vivaldi's original, but a later edition by Tivadar Nachéz that includes some Romantic era-style enhancements.
Modern performances of the original Vivaldi, especially performances by Baroque specialists, tend to go much faster than what you might find on an earlier Suzuki recording, or even a mid 20th-century recording. (For example, this recording by the Toronto-based Baroque group Tafelmusik>)
"It's composed as a pretty fast movement, in cut time," Hadelich said. "But this Nachez version, which has a much thicker, more filled-in piano part, is meant to go slower. Still, I found that if it's too slow, then I started to lose my feeling that it's moving along in a fun, joyful way."
The tempo they arrived at is a little more flowing than the old recording, but still appropriate for students and fitting the Nachéz version. Students will sometimes need to hear or play along with a slower version, and in that case there are several options that now exist: Alfred Music has an option to slow down a recording on its SmartMusic platform, and also the app Amazing Slow Downer, which allows recordings to be slowed without compromising the pitch.
And speaking of Baroque performance practices, the Handel Sonatas that appear in Book 6 would have been played with a Baroque bow, accompanied by harpsichord. What about that?
"Again, this is an unusual recording because if I was going to record just the Handel Sonatas, probably I would use a Baroque bow and record with harpsichord -- I would be interested in exploring that," Hadelich said. "But since these are pedagogical recordings that go along with the books, the way I play it is supposed to be something that the students will be able to do as well. They are not going to have a Baroque bow or a harpsichord - they're going to play with a pianist and a modern bow."
That said, Hadelich still tried to bring a Baroque sensibility to the music. "I'm trying to bring a certain lightness and stylistic approach that fits the music, so in many cases my approach to the articulation is a little bit lighter than the previous Suzuki recordings," he said. "But it is all done with a modern bow and with the bowings and all the fingerings written in the books. I want the students who look at the books and hear these recordings to see that I am playing what is in the books, but that the music of Vivaldi does sound different from music that is more Romantic."
And what of those fingerings and bowings? There used to be many complaints, but many people don't realize that the books have undergone major revisions, starting around 2008, in terms of bowings, fingerings and even notes.
"I found the markings, the fingerings to be very thoughtful," Hadelich said. "They were good, and very appropriate. Some movements, like the lullabies, had two fingerings, one that was in first position and one that was a little fancier, in third and fourth. So then for the repeats, I did the fancier one, when there were alternate fingerings. Other times, when there were two options, I just picked the option that I liked more. Occasionally, in the Handel, there are some moments where it doesn't actually tell you what to do; they start to give students and their teachers a little more leeway. So I had more possibilities to do whatever I wanted to do."
"I knew these recordings would be a big project and a big responsibility, because of how many kids are going to hear them," Hadelich said. "For those years that they hear these recordings, they can be really influential for their whole concept of sound, violin playing and approach. Not every recording has an impact like that, and that's really exciting," he said, "but at the same time, I want to have the right kind of impact."
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