The Naxos Interview: Laurence Vittes talks with producer engineer editor Sean Lewis about working with Leif Segerstam
May 15, 2017
For the 150th anniversary of Jean Sibelius’ death in 2015, Naxos produced six CDs of the composer’s complete incidental music, including rarities like Swan White, The Lizard, and the ballet Scaramouche, which was Sibelius’ largest work in any form. The Turku Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Leif Segerstam, and the sessions were produced, engineered, and edited by Sean Lewis.
The success of the Naxos-Segerstam-Turku-Lewis collaboration in shedding an invigorating light on more than six and a half hours of mostly unfamiliar Sibelius, raises expectations about what they will accomplish in their new project, scheduled for recording later this month: the complete incidental music of Beethoven, plus rare single items, adding to the label’s already comprehensive coverage ahead of the 250th Beethoven birthday celebrations in 2020.
Lewis spoke to me from Oslo, where he admitted he didn’t really know these Beethoven works before the assignment came through, though he’d heard them, and “had no idea how they will do them!”
Laurence Vittes: Obviously, you can only know so much music, even of Sibelius and Beethoven.
Sean Lewis: Honestly, I feel I’ve heard enough Beethoven to understand his language, if we can put it that way. What will particularly interest me is Segerstam’s take. Will it be luscious romantic or strict classical? It’s impossible to know in advance.
LV: As I recall, his Sibelius was more romantic than classical.
Sean Lewis: It’s true that some of the Sibelius pieces came out many minutes longer than we had expected. Take our Valse Triste—there can’t be many slower versions. But Segerstam has a fabulous sense of pulse, which is why he could do these long lines and very slow tempi if he chooses. In fact, Segerstam has some of the same qualities Karajan had, in terms of pulse and intensity of sound.
LV: How do you prepare in general?
Sean Lewis: Well, I’ll listen to some recordings, but I generally rely on my instincts. I don’t need to prepare anything in the sense of score reading; I’ll get the scores when I’m there. And it’s not about my coming in with an agenda, certainly not an interpretative one. As producer, I listen and try to help the artists to deliver what they want to deliver in the most convincing way possible. I will share my notes with them on obvious technical issues like ensemble and intonation, and on sound aspects like timbre, color, and the many other things that give performers and performances their identity.
LV: How does your listening to other recordings affect the musicians?
Sean Lewis: Only positively and unobtrusively, I hope. Hearing masterful interpretations opens the door a bit wider into the composer’s work, and this is always useful background knowledge for me to have when I am producing a recording. But, although I know some great recorded interpretations of many of the pieces I record, I would never want the musicians to copy anything from their producer’s favourite interpretation.
LV: Does it still all come down to editing?
Sean Lewis: When I’m the producer, I’m thinking editing from the word go: How will the great moments of music-making stitch together?
LV: And how soon do you know?
Sean Lewis: After so many years of recording I get a feel, actually from the first take, how the CD is going to be; and by the time I come away from the recording sessions, I know more or less how the finished product is going to turn out.
LV: And did you know right away with Segerstam conducting Sibelius in Turku?
Sean Lewis: I knew right away. Segerstam had such a clear voice, and was so inspiring to work with, that all the unfamiliar Sibelius came together incredibly well. I’m looking forward to the same in the unfamiliar Beethoven.
Leif Segerstam Biography & Discography
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra Biography & Discography
Jean Sibelius Biography & Discography