Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Rise and Rise of Antiphonal Violins

I still recall the thrill of it. That CD release back in April 2006. It was revelatory in so many ways, though it's more difficult to appreciate that now. For me, anticipation was high: my favourite orchestra, one of the greatest living conductors and the start of a new Beethoven symphony cycle on disc - the first such high profile cycle in many years. What could a new cycle tell us about Beethoven that previous ones had not?

That disc.  (C) London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink's previous Beethoven on disc was sure but solid - no bad thing, but not exactly revelatory. Also, much as I greatly admired both Haitink and his orchestra for this new cycle - the London Symphony Orchestra - neither were previously acclaimed in this repertoire. And yet, with a great whacking 'thwum', the opening chord of Beethoven's seventh symphony struck me like a blow to the solar plexus. Within just a few bars, the trademark sound of this cycle was evident: hard and hefty timpani playing, a viscera-rattling double bass section and...antiphonal violins.

Haitink didn't 'do' antiphonal violins, did he? Not that I can recall. It was as though he'd been awaiting this moment to 'come out' as an antiphonalist in spectacular style. I realise 'antiphonalist' is not actually a word, by the way, but if it did it would almost certainly describe me. Back in 2006, not many symphony orchestras were arranged with antiphonal violins regularly and very few were recorded as such. At the time I was in the process of establishing my own orchestra, Eroica Camerata, and it felt like quite the act of rebellion to seat them in this way from the outset. Players and audience members alike were somewhat bemused but generally accepted the arrangement at the least as a 'period quirk'. Little did most of them know, or even recall, that almost all symphony orchestras were seated this way until the middle of the twentieth century.

After Haitink's revelatory Beethoven symphony cycle, there have followed many more. Who would have thought there was an appetite for these before this set was released? What is most notable for me, however, is the fact that almost every high profile, modern instrument, Beethoven symphony cycle since then has featured antiphonal violins. Dare I ask, but was this the moment when the traditional orchestral layout became fashionable again?

Since then, we have also seen a steady stream of conductors converted to antiphonal violins. Haitink was not the first in this respect, with Rattle, Barenboim and Gergiev before him. Nevertheless, there followed Vänskä, (Paavo) Järvi, Chailly, Blomstedt, Oramo, Dudamel, Adès, Nagano, Karabits, Collon, to name but some. Not all of these maestros adopt this layout in all repertoire but progress has been made.

It's not only Beethoven symphony cycles that have gone this way. It's the de rigeur arrangement for Schumann, Brahms, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Mahler and Elgar symphony releases these days. Sure, there are one or two sticks in the mud: Vasily Petrenko and Andris Nelsons spring to mind. Having said that, even Nelsons is having to utilise the arrangement in Leipzig where the Gewandhausorchester appear to have adopted antiphonal violins as a corporate layout since the Chailly era. Good on them.

Mirga goes antiphonal. (C) City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
I continue to be delighted by the sight and sound of so many orchestras (re)adopting this layout. Here in Birmingham, under the force of nature that is Mirga, even the CBSO has gone antiphonal, albeit only in repertoire from Mozart to Mahler. The BBC orchestras, on the other hand, remain somewhat resistant to antiphonal violins. The BBC Proms over the last five years or so are testament to this: while the proportion of visiting orchestras sporting antiphonal violins has increased dramatically in this period, the BBC orchestras mainly keep the violin sections together. I wonder if there is institutional or artistic resistance to altering the orchestral layout in these organisations?

There will continue to be a variety of orchestral layouts for as long as orchestras exist - and rightly so. I predict that the traditional, antiphonal, layout in symphony orchestras will return to predominate in the next fifty years, perhaps beyond. I doubt many will mind, the odd cellist perhaps excepted. Some, like me, will be more than happy about it.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Evidence from Sir Henry Wood's Autobiography

I have been reading Sir Henry Wood's autobiography, My Life of Music, and recently came across a revealing passage:


The book was published in 1938 and so this is compelling evidence that violins were still predominantly antiphonally seated in orchestras at this time, given his reference to "so few conductors" agreeing with his own "disposition".

I am slightly perplexed by his description of the placement of cellos opposite basses, however, as I can't picture what he meant by this. Perhaps this photograph of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra from 1936 illustrates his point:

(from http://www.stokowski.org/Principal_Musicians_San_Francisco_Symphony.htm)
Here it can be seen that the principal cellos are located centrally while the double basses are situated to the right of stage (conductor's view). This is the nearest to opposite placement of cellos and double basses I can find evidence of or imagine. If anyone is able to shed any light on this, I'd be most grateful.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

A quite bizarre orchestral layout in Birmingham

Having noticed in recent reviews that the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra had tinkered with their strings layout, I was keen to get along to a concert to see and hear how it was working out in practice.

For those readers not familiar with my blog posts, I am a nerdy student of orchestral layouts and a proselytiser for the use of antiphonal violins. As far as conducting is concerned, these matters are hardly unimportant though there are seemingly some practitioners who do little to demonstrate their engagement with them.

Anyway, I gathered that the CBSO had relocated their double bass section from the right hand side of the stage (conductor's view), behind the celli, to the rear of the stage. This change can be illustrated (very roughly) as follows:

From...

 to...



The concert I caught, conducted by Edward Gardner, featured a programme of Mozart and Elgar. For the Mozart, the smaller double bass section (represented by 'CB' in the diagrams above) remained on the right behind the celli. For the Elgar, featuring the full section of eight basses, the new formation was adopted.

Theoretically, this layout makes very little sense to me. Having rear-ranged basses like this is actually ideal as far as I am concerned, though my own orchestra has too few basses to make this a practical possibility. However, this is in the pursuit of making the bass the foundation of the orchestral sound, upon which everything else is built. As such, one would also ideally locate the celli in the centre of the sound picture and stage. This can either be centre-left (as Boult favoured) or centre-right (as Monteux favoured). If one is to follow this to the logical conclusion then the bassoons would be situated on the same side as the celli and the bass brass instruments would be situated more centrally also. My own hypothesis is that locating the celli on the same side as the horns creates the added benefit of underlining their melodic role in Romantic music when playing in unison.

Returning to the new CBSO layout, the bass sound would be expected to lose focus with the celli on the right and their bass colleagues disconnected and relocated to the rear of the stage. This was, indeed, the case in practice. Though the writing for celli and basses became more and more independent through the late Classical and Romantic periods, their co-ordination is still of great importance. At one stage in the concert I attended I saw a front desk cellist, seemingly vexed, straining to see his bass colleagues in order to co-ordinate simple unison pizzicato notes. Of course, when basses are situated behind the celli the latter cannot look at their bass colleagues in order to do this. However, the opposite is certainly possible and the two sections would tend to move as one in that telepathic way that cannot be fully explained in rational terms.

The CBSO previously had a focused and punchy bass sound in their previous formation, even if I did not approve of it being located away from the centre of the orchestra. I feel this was compromised in their new formation. I do hope that the new formation is a mere experiment and that they will either revert to their previous layout or, even better, consider going the whole hog and relocating their cellos to the middle of the orchestra where they can be reconnected with their bass colleagues whilst allowing the violins to be arranged how Elgar would have expected them to have been.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Mendelssohn in Birmingham: Volume One

Having attended the corresponding 'Mendelssohn in Birmingham' concert, I was eagerly awaiting this release by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under their Principal Guest Conductor (and possibly next Music Director, according to me and others), Edward Gardner. 

It is an exciting prospect for a number of reasons. One of which is the fact that the CBSO, arguably, hasn't been recorded in its own right for a major record label for quite a number of years now. It certainly hasn't been recorded by Chandos for a long time. And so what a treat to hear them recorded with such splendid engineering! However, the recorded sound turns out to be both a blessing and a curse.

Now, the field of Mendelssohn symphony cycles is not a desperately crowded one (Abbado's 1980s LSO set was my favourite for a long while) and the first thing to say is that few people will be disappointed by these energetic and zesty performances of the 4th and 5th symphonies (coupled with the Hebrides overture). The 'Italian', in particular, is characterised by a welcome drive. The inner movements move forward, as they should, with tasteful shaping of phrases just as I remember from the live performances that accompanied these studio recordings. This 'Italian' is superb.

The 'Reformation' is actually the second of the full orchestral symphonies that Mendelssohn composed - a fact that aids the listener's understanding of the piece as well as helping explain why it doesn't quite hang together as well as the composer's later works, though its more experimental features are deliciously inventive. In view of this, the work really needs a good advocate, as Gardner proves to be here. The finale, with its working out of a hymnal theme, is particularly thrilling as Gardner injects fresh energy into each new section. My own taste is for a less swift tempo in the Scherzo but that would be my only complaint from an interpretative point of view. This movement really is one of Mendelssohn's most delightful and louche, even, in the Trio section. 

The overture is also thrillingly executed though I doubt the composer himself would approve of the less than subtle tempo changes liberally applied where none are marked in the score, but that is neither here nor there. This performance will appeal to most, I daresay. 

What of the orchestral, and recorded, sound? The disc had me turning to its main competition in this field, Andrew Litton's cycle with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, curiously enough whose music directorship is to be taken on by Gardner in 2015. Though there is little difference in the interpretations, the difference in orchestral and recorded sound is significant. Firstly, the renowned Chandos reverb ensures that the Birmingham Town Hall acoustic is as anonymous as any of their other recording venues, though doubtless the acoustic did not hinder the sound terribly, accommodating and spacious as it is. Prominence is given to the martial trumpets, horns and timpani as well as the strings, meaning that the 'middle range' of woodwind is difficult to make out in the tutti sections. This is a shame, as Mendelssohn's orchestration really is quite delightful in these works. You'd be hard pressed to identify the orchestra, too, aside perhaps from Peter Hill's characteristically enthusiastic and thrilling timpani flourishes! I hope it's not too cruel to say that the sound of the orchestra conforms to the brilliant but anonymous standards of the label's flagship Royal Scottish National Orchestra of the 1980s and 90s. 

The Bergen Philharmonic have the benefit of a rather more characterful wind section (those tangy bassoons, in particular!), which are ever-present in the recorded blend, and antiphonal violins. I can't emphasise the importance of the latter in this music enough. Now, Mr Litton is not one to arrange them as such regularly but he must have realised that for his Mendelssohn recordings to be competitive nowadays they'd need this arrangement to aid contrapuntal and fugal clarity. Curiously, Mr Gardner used to arrange his violins thus earlier in his career. I do hope that he does not feel afraid to institute this with the orchestras he works with now and in the future. Finally, the BIS sound is a little flatter and drier, which does seem to suit the music a little better than Chandos's resonance but this will be a matter of personal taste.

I suspect that this series will represent an important addition to the Mendelssohn discography and it is thrilling enough on its own terms, so I would not hesitate to recommend it. However, Litton's cycle remains the modern benchmark for me and I'd urge you to have both in your collections. 


Saturday, 26 October 2013

On orchestral layout at the BBC Proms 2013

Readers of my previous blog posts will need no reminder that I have something of an interest in orchestral layouts. This summer (2013) I took it upon myself to try to document how the string players were seated in all of the BBC Prom concerts. Though I did not attend a single one of these concerts, I did listen to the majority on the radio or online. I was kindly assisted in my task by various Twitter colleagues including Mark Berry (@boulezian) and Jane Shuttleworth (@altojane), who attended some of the concerts in question and so I am grateful for their help. There are a few concerts for which I was unable to reliably confirm the seating plan and they are indicated with a question mark in the 'layout' column. If anyone is able to supply the missing information then please feel free to comment and I will modify the table.

You can access the data here. I have named the various string layouts according to conductors I strongly associate with them, as follows, as arranged left to right from the conductor's working point of view:

Adrian Boult*                1st Violins       Cellos/Basses        Violas                 2nd Violins

Pierre Monteux             1st Violins       Violas                   Cellos/Basses      2nd Violins

Henry Wood                 1st Violins       2nd Violins            Violas                  Cellos/Basses

Herbert von Karajan       1st Violins       2nd Violins            Cellos/Basses      Violas

Some Facts and Figures

Antiphonal violins featured in 38% of the concerts included in the study vs. 62% in which the first and second violins were seated together. Of the two antiphonal violin layouts, the 'Boult' was most often employed (16/22 concerts). Of the two violins together layouts, the 'Wood' was most often employed (28/36). This seems somehow appropriate considering that Wood and Boult were towering Proms figures in the first half of the 20th century.

bearded man in evening dress seen from his left, conducting an orchestra and making a dramatic gesture, holding the baton high over his head
Henry Wood in 1908 as painted by Cyrus Cuneo

Of the twelve British conductors featured in the verified concerts, seven employed antiphonal violins. These were: Jonathan Nott, Donald Runnicles, Daniel Harding, Mark Elder, Robin Ticciati, Andrew Davis and Antonio Pappano.

All of the Wagner Operas were performed with antiphonal violins.

Of the thirteen orchestras performing with antiphonal violins, seven were British. Of the seventeen British orchestras performing, seven employed antiphonal violins some or all of the time.

Curiosities

Two conductors generally not associated with antiphonal violins employed them in at least one of their concerts: Andrew Davis and Marin Alsop. I daresay that they were respecting corporate layouts as I doubt the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment would be too happy about seating their violins together, particularly in the music of Schumann and Brahms. Also, the production of Billy Budd was part of a Glyndebourne tour and the orchestra was laid out this way for the tour, I believe.

Arch-antiphonalist, Valery Gergiev, opted for the 'Karajan' layout with the recently-formed National Youth Orchestra of the USA (Prom 13). Again, this may have been a corporate layout that Gergiev was respecting.

On two occasions, two conductors, François-Xavier Roth (Prom 4) and Sakari Oramo (Prom 52), opted to switch layouts halfway through concerts. This may have been due to the particular repertoire. Roth was certainly justified in employing the Monteux layout for the Rite of Spring, which was premiered by that late French conductor using that layout. Quite why he opted for the 'Karajan' layout in the French Baroque music I don't know. String layouts were changeable and frequently experimental in the Baroque period but I am not aware of this particular layout being employed from any of the schematic drawings I have seen. Oramo, a more recent convert to antiphonalism, likely employed the 'Wood' layout for the contemporary piece in the programme rather than for the Sibelius.

Violin seating flip-flopper, Mariss Jansons, presented the great Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Proms 33 and 35) in the 'Karajan' layout, which was introduced into orchestras long after the composers whose music was performed (Berlioz, Beethoven and Mahler) were dead. This was a disappointment, frankly, even if the concerts were not.


(Rafael Kubelik conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in the 'Boult' layout)

Trends

This is the first year I have documented the layouts for the Proms and so I cannot comment on the difference between this year and last. However, I did take a keen interest in this matter last year and I'm pretty confident that there was a significant increase in the number of concerts featuring antiphonal violins. I will endeavour to conduct the same study next year so that a comparison can be made. The Proms is a unique music festival in that it features so many concerts and so many orchestras from around the world. It is, therefore, a useful indicator of trends in orchestral string seating.

I find the fact that more British conductors than not utilised antiphonal violins quite interesting, as well as the significant number of British orchestras deploying them. I think this represents a trend towards our orchestras restoring this layout more generally.

Please feel free to interrogate this data, modest in scale as it is. 

@musicdirektor

*strictly speaking, Sir Adrian preferred his double basses to be ranged along the back of the orchestra.