Digitally restored by VRT: the winner of the first Queen Elisabeth Competition sounds crystal clear
June 21, 2022 - We now know who won the Queen Elisabeth Competition for cello, namely the Korean cellist Hayoung Choi. She scored with a distinctive choice for a contemporary concerto by the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski. The public award went to the only Belgian cellist, Stéphanie Huang. Unlike in the past, audiences were now able to follow everything in detail over a period of a month. Formerly, sound was cut or 'engraved' in lacquer plates, such as the winning performance of the Russian violinist Leonid Kogan in the first Queen Elisabeth Competition in 1951. That recording, which was full of crackles and low humming sounds has now been digitally restored by the VRT archive. And now, after more than 70 years, the recording of Paganini sounds crystal clear once again.
In the "quiet" years, sound, and therefore music, was recorded on a lacquered disc. It was a time before the advent of the tape recorder, the cassette recorder and all digital applications. Lacquer discs were also used in 1951, at the very first Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, when the Russian violinist Leonid Kogan played his final. He won the competition and became a big name in the music world.
On 23rd May 1951, in the main hall of the Palais des Beaux Arts, microphones and machines were set up ready to broadcast the concert live on the radio (there was no television yet in Belgium), but also to record and cut the recording in lacquer discs. This unquestionably historical recording was first digitized before Alan De Feyter, sound engineer for the VRT archive, carried out a thorough restoration of it. That is to say, all distracting noises and imperfections have been removed so that the music comes into its own. This is precision work.
De Feyter: "There was a lot of hum and noise and clicking sounds. All these imperfections distract from the pure concert experience. I have tried to cut out the 'medium' as much as possible and to make the line between listener and performer as direct as possible. Without obscuring the fact that it is a recording, of course. If I did, it would blur the finer points of the music. When you are restoring it is also important not to go too far. In this case I think it turned out very well. Better than what I am usually able to achieve. The original recording was also better than what I get to work with generally and this was also true of the condition of the records."
The difference is huge. "You can now hear a lot of details, which I was able to bring out by digitally refining the recording. That makes the listening experience so much richer,” concludes Alan De Feyter.
Wolfgang Heiremans: "I am very surprised. The last part of the Paganini concerto used to be completely unlistenable. Now you really hear everything: the very beautiful sound and all the details, even the violinist's stomach growling. The result is truly spectacular!"
Wolfgang Heiremans works for the VRT Archive and was a professional violinist for 20 years, during which time he also performed as first violinist with the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra and concert master with Il Novecento. He has been closely following the Queen Elisabeth Competition for decades.
A myth has arisen about the final performance by violinist Leonid Kogan, stating that its execution was technically perfect.
Wolfgang Heiremans: "If you now listen to this restored sound recording, you realise that not everything was technically perfect and that the interplay with the orchestra also occasionally went wrong. The performance by Philippe Hirshhorn, the winner in 1967 and under whom I myself studied later on, was technically better. But it is and remains a fantastic and phenomenal performance."
Listen to the new, restored version here: Leonid Kogan's Queen Elisabeth win restored to glory | VRT NWS: news
The VRT's lacquer disc project came about in collaboration with meemoo, Flemish Institute for Archives, which is the expertise centre for digital cultural heritage in Flanders and Brussels.