Thursday, 26 April 2012

Great new releases featuring antiphonal violins

My last post documented how the seating plan of the orchestra has changed over the centuries, with a particular focus on the violins. I described my strong/borderline militant preference for antiphonally seated violins and mentioned that I would blog about some wonderful new recordings featuring such a seating plan. Well, here they are...

Mahler 7 from Nott (Tudor)

This Mahler 7 from the Bamberg SO under Jonathan Nott is particularly interesting.  His is not the first recording to feature antiphonal violins (Barenboim and Gergiev spring to mind - also excellent accounts) but I was gripped by the dangerously slow introduction.  I don't think any of my previous favourite accounts (see below) have such a consistently slow introduction, without acceleration, and Nott manages to transition into the main Allegro section with us barely noticing the increase in tempo. The orchestral layout allows us to catch all sorts of details and dialogues between the violin sections.

The orchestra has a fine sound but, if anything, suffers from a lack of personality: the brass a little too well-rounded (some vibrato would be nice) and the woodwind I expected to sound a little more Bohemian.  I don't think it rates as highly as Nott's Mahler 3, which was recently released, but it is an intriguing performance nevertheless and the return of the opening theme in the finale is really quite gripping.

My benchmarks: 

London Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas (pure, unalloyed virtuosity, which has its place in this work and largely free of the idiosyncrasies that feature in his San Francisco cycle; often overlooked)

Berliner Philharmoniker/Claudio Abbado (probably the finest interpretation but prepare yourself for weird microphone-shifting sonics in that infamously tricky acoustic of the Philharmonie)

Schumann Piano Concerto from Oppitz (Tudor)

My next disc is one that easily attained benchmark status for me, and the antiphonal violins really were important for that, as is not always the case. Here, we have Gerhard Oppitz performing Schumann's wonderful Piano Concerto, along with other works for piano and orchestra, with the Bamberger Symphoniker under Marc Andreae.

This is at least as fine a performance as my previous benchmark (BPO/Andsnes/Jansons). The first thing that strikes you is that this is a first movement that is not hanging around! After the initial flourish, things really do get cracking but it never feels hurried, unlike the rather pallid recent account by Howard Shelley and the Orchestra of Opera North. Not only is the pianism fine in this performance but the orchestral contributions are special, too. Andreae clearly knows what he is doing with Schumann as every detail can be heard, without manipulation. Woodwind contributions, so important in this work, are beautifully shaped. Indeed, this recording allows the character of the wind players to shine through much more than the above one with the same orchestra.

Listen out for my favourite detail at 3:49 in the first movement! Those repeated concert Gs in the horns before the orchestral reprise in C major: so often undetectable on recordings (with the honourable exception of the Andsnes recording) and it is these little details that make such discs stand out.

The antiphonal violins come into their own throughout this recording but there are a couple of highlights for me. Firstly, the sinewy string passages in the tuttis of the first movement certainly benefit from this arrangement. However, it is an important moment in the final movement during which this arrangement really pays off. At around 9:20 into the movement the piece, in many recordings, can sound like Schumann ran out of inspiration but with this arrangement we can hear very clearly the answering phrases of the 2nd violins, which are the main voice in the musical argument. Finally, Oppitz then expertly paces the digression at 9:42 so that our interest never falters in this wonderful rondo movement.

A lovely bonus is a version of the Konzertstuck for Four Horns and Orchestra for piano and orchestra. It is no substitute for the real thing but allows the listener to hear all the lovely orchestral details clearly. It's also pretty good as a standalone fantasy for piano and orchestra in this form. The disc also, generously, includes the Introduction and Concert Allegro, Op 134 and the Introduction and Allegro appasionato, Op 92. What a great disc for Schumannophiles!

My benchmarks:

This one!

Leif Ove Andsnes/Berliner Philharmoniker/Mariss Jansons (a lovely, if more spacious, account of this enduring masterpiece with that beefy Berlin sound)

The ultimate Symphonie Fantastique from Ticciati (Linn)

I was most surprised when I listened to this new release from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Robin Ticciati, the first in a promising series of Berlioz recordings. This up-and-coming fellow is a protege of Sir Colin Davis and so one might expect him to adhere closely to his mentor's approach. Nothing of the sort! That is, apart from sharing a wonderful and complete vision of the work. 

This is essentially a period-influenced modern chamber orchestra version of the work: strings often use minimal vibrato (to the point of sounding like Norrington's Stuttgart players) and we hear natural horns, too. I suppose I find this most surprising as (see my previous post) Sir Colin has recently denounced historically-informed approaches and one wonders what he might think of this recording! That said, I think this approach (even with much smaller string forces than Berlioz would have expected or hoped for) works very well. There are several period instrument recordings of this work (Norrington, Gardiner and van Immerseel spring to mind) but I think SF benefits from the immediacy of sound that modern instruments bring. Here, the reduced strings means that all the details you might hope to hear are audible. I missed the luxury of addional strings here and there, particularly in the bassi departments, but this is a small point overall.

The benefits of antiphonal violins are plain even in the wonderfully shaped introduction. This is one of those works that is the easy answer to the question "why antiphonal violins?" and I am surprised that so few recordings feature this arrangement. It just adds to the edginess and wild originality that pervades the work. I have no idea why Rattle, in his recent Berlin recording, reverted to lumping the violins together when he does not most of the time. That SF was far too plush and comfortable as most of the modern symphony orchestra recordings are, sadly, which makes them doomed to fail. As it happens, Ticciati seats his cellos centre-right in this recording. with violas centre-left and eminently audible.

Ticciati paces the first movement perfectly so that the climax is a right old riot as it should be. He never loses a lucid sense of pacing either in these exciting moments throughout the piece, even in the coda of the finale. The second movement waltz is graceful and charming as the strings are permitted a little more vibrato here. Listen out for the all-important 1st/2nd violin dialogue in the frenzied close of this movement! The third movement has beautifully played oboe and cor anglais solos and one senses a great deal of concentration here from all the players. The 'thunder' on the timps sounds particularly chilling. The March to the Scaffold in the fourth movement is swifter than I expected but is exciting and the timp players, otherwise faultless, get their timing perfectly right only in the repeat of the exposition. For the record, all the repeats in this piece are observed, thankfully.

The finale is rightly vulgar - check out the rasping lower brass and shrieking clarinets! The coda, as mentioned above, gains pace only fractionally and the vital lower brass contributions can be heard throughout. As a bonus, there's a nice reading of the Beatrice et Benedict overture, too. Bravo!

My benchmarks:

This one!

South West German Radio Symphony Orchestra (Stuttgart)/Sir Roger Norrington (a full-size modern orchestra with period manners, employing not only antiphonal violins but harps, too!)

Concertgebouw Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis (a revelatory reading that is not to be missed in full-bodied orchestral sound but with the lucidity of texture that only this orchestra can muster so well; also features the additional ad lib cornet contributions that are absent in the urtext edition of the score. Davis's LSO Live remake is also fine but the Barbican acoustic renders the sound a bit too dry and chunky for my taste. Violins not antiphonal but the recording gives good separation nonetheless)


You might also like to know that all of these recordings are available on SACD, if you're into that. Please see for reviews of these discs and many more. The website features reviews by folks a lot more experienced at reviewing than me. If you're into downloading, like me, then you might be interested to have a look at, where recordings such as the above can be downloaded at ridiculously cheap prices much of the time, if you subscribe.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Divided violins - Sir Adrian would be pleased.

Sir Adrian Boult would be pleased.

I thought it was worth finally posting on an issue close to my heart. A good friend and marvellous bass player recently suggested (and I'm not sure she was joking) that I was "belligerently antiphonal violins". I don't like to think that I am belligerently anything but in musical terms I suppose this is true.

Firstly, I want to draw readers' attentions to the major British orchestra/music director combinations that currently seat their violin sections opposite one another, in what I shall hereon refer to as the 'traditional' layout:

Northern Sinfonia/Zehetmair 

and the ones that retain what I shall refer to as the 'modern' layout, ie. violins seated all together on the left:


I should add that the BBCSO under Belohlavek dabble in both layouts, depending on repertoire. This is an approach that could be considered to be thoughtful but, ultimately, unhelpful. The following notable international combinations also currently favour the 'traditional' layout:

Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle 
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester/Chailly 
Bamberg SO/Nott 
Boston SO/Levine 
San Francisco SO/MTT 
Dresden Staatskapelle/Thielemann 
Cleveland Orchestra/Welser-Most 
Royal Stockholm PO/Oramo 
Russian NO/Pletnev

And the notable international 'modern' combinations:

Chicago SO/Muti 
Philadelphia Orchestra/Nezet-Seguin 
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Jansons

These are the ones that spring foremost into my mind and there will be others, I am sure. The distribution in these lists is quite remarkable; to me, anyway. Even ten years ago the proportion of top-flight orchestras sporting the 'traditional' violin layout was small indeed (just pop the LSO, LPO, RSNO and BBCSSO into the 'modern' list and you will see what I mean just from the British perspective). I recall, when setting up my own orchestra in 2005, feeling like I was bucking the trend by opting for antiphonal violins.

An orchestra, probably the predecessor of the SFSO, in San Francisco, 1894
Elgar with the LSO in 1911

Mahler conducting Beethoven's 9th symphony in Strasbourg, 1905

Why am I even bothering to write about such a triviality? The objective part of me is nagging me that the layout should not matter. It probably does not matter for the majority of concert-goers for whom the 'modern' layout seems quite normal. History tells us that there is a good reason for that. The middle of the 20th century saw a great shift from what was the 19th and early 20th century norm of antiphonal violins (see the above photographs) towards the almost uniform adoption of violins seated all together. And who should we blame/thank for this? Our very own orchestral moderniser, Sir Henry Wood.

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
Wood was responsible for many innovations in British orchestral life. He was a great supporter of female instrumentalists being taken on in orchestras and was, of course, a major figure in championing Robert Newman's Promenade concerts that are still going strong today. He also tried to do away with the practice of players deputising for his concerts which, notoriously, led to the formation of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1904. Wood was a keen innovator and was happy to experiment with various forms of orchestral layout.  It is not clear whether the practice of seating the first and second violins together was his idea to begin with. Wood was a popular guest conductor both in Europe and North America and he may well have been inspired by an idea being tried in the latter continent. In any case, his New Queens Hall Orchestra (sans those truculent LSO players!) were the perfect vehicle for him to try out the new layout.  Here they are pictured in the lovely Queens Hall in 1920:

Sir Henry Wood conducting the New Queens Hall Orchestra in 1920

Wood would have soon noticed the plush string sound that could be achieved in this formation and it was not long before other conductors began to experiment with this layout for themselves. Stokowski was another famous convert. The 'Stokowski' sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra was no doubt attributed to this sort of string layout on stage. Here, however, he can be seen using the 'tradional' layout for the American premiere of Mahler's 8th symphony in 1916, clearly not yet a convert:

Philadelphia Orchestra
Leopold Stokowski with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1916

Other notable converts included Beecham, Bernstein, van Beinum and Karajan. That they were such giants in the middle part of the 20th century probably explains why the trend towards the 'modern' violin layout was so strong. The previous generation of conducting giants, such as Toscanini, Klemperer, Monteux, Mengelberg, Weingartner, Reiner, Mravinsky and Furtwangler continued to use the 'traditional' violin layout but it sadly all but died out with them. Unfortunately, this coincided with the development of stereo recording techniques. As such, most recordings from the stereo era (late 1950s to the present) captured the aural geography of the 'modern' layout: treble to the left and bass to the right - a most dissatisfying listening experience for me, at least, but one I largely grew up with and knew little better than.

There was, however, an apparently lone warrier: Sir Adrian Boult. He was well-known to be a most polite gentleman but his feelings on this matter were very strong indeed. You will encounter them in his books and conducting texts. His famous letter to Gramophone magazine in January 1968 documents his well-contained fury at having been forced to adopt the 'modern' violin layout for his latest recordings of the Elgar symphonies with the LPO by Lyrita Records. His argument was thus:

"I want to know whether your readers would like to hear most of their treble sound coming from the left speaker and the bass from the right or whether they want a balanced whole? With that balanced whole they will get the antiphonal effect between violins so often written for by composers from Mozart to Elgar. With the modern placing they will sometimes get a fuller sound when the firsts and seconds play in unison, but it seems to me the only advantage; while subtle effects, like Beethoven's scoring at the sixth bar of the Fifth Symphony, will come to them as from a pianoforte arrangement."

This caused quite a stir in the Gramophone correspondence columns but the overwhelming majority of readers seemed to agree with Sir Adrian. Alas, the majority of his conducting colleagues did not. Some of his acolytes kept the tradition afloat (Handley, Hickox, more recently before his untimely death, and even Sir Colin Davis on the odd occasion) but it was not for some decades that the recent trend back towards the 'traditional' layout occurred. The result for me, at least, is quite exciting.  It means that many a new recording, even of core repertoire, will be only one of a handful to feature antiphonal violins captured in glorious stereo and so a great voyage of discovery lies ahead. One should not forget the great stereo recordings of Boult, Klemperer, Monteux and Reiner, of course. I was reminded of this just last night when listening to Boult conducting various London orchestras in a fine set of Wagner preludes and overtures. A future post will draw readers' attentions to some exciting new recordings featuring antiphonal violins that shed new light on familiar works.

It hardly needs saying that violins are just one aspect of the orchestral layout. With violins seated antiphonally, the cellos can be seated either to the left of centre or to the right.  Some of my players refer to these layouts, respectively, as "wrong seating number one and "wrong seating number two" which, rather charmingly, illustrates just how ingrained the 'modern' seating plan is in musicians even today.  Whilst I prefer the former arrangement I have been known to experiment with the latter (which may suit pieces with passages involving unison violin 1 and viola melodies particularly well). The important aspect of both of these arrangements is having the bass sound concentrated within the orchestra - a firm foundation upon which all else is built. As a conductor, one can focus this by having the celli, double basses and bassoons all in the same line of sight.

There are numerous ways to position the woodwind and brass instruments, of course, but I do not have the space to discuss these here. I would refer the curious reader to Norman Del Mar's essential 'Anatomy of the Orchestra' for further reading in this respect.  It can be found at a most reasonable price from a second-hand bookseller. Del Mar has much to say on the issue of string seating and includes relevant musical examples that highlight the benefits of antiphonal violins. 

If anyone asks me why I seat violins antiphonally I simply refer them to the music: the symphonies and concerti of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Mahler, Elgar and many more besides. All these benefit from the 'traditional' layout.  However, I would go further than this: I assert that there are very few works that truly benefit from the 'modern' layout and so there is little reason for orchestras now to be regularly seated as such.  Certainly, one can understand the reasons why the 'modern' layout was adopted at the time it was. After the first world war and beyond, the standard of major symphony orchestras was at a low ebb and the new layout probably helped to significantly develop the quality of British ensemble playing in the 20th century. Also, the new British orchestras such as the BBCSO, LPO, RPO and Philharmonia quickly became the best in their league by recruiting the best players in the interwar and post-WW2 period and so they became the standard by which other orchestras were measured, both here and abroad.  It just so happened that they were conducted, mostly, by fellows who were converts to the 'modern' layout in their infancy. In the interests of balance, here is Sir Adrian caught in the act of 'trying' his mentor, Wood's layout, with his new BBCSO:

BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Queen's Hall 1930
The BBCSO with Sir Adrian Boult in 1930
The standard of modern orchestral playing is far superior to that even in the mid-20th century and so antiphonally-seated violins should pose no difficulties for today's players.  Some musicians argue that 20th century composers would have been composing with the 'modern' layout in mind.  I would say that this is largely untrue.  Many of the more famous composers of the 20th century, such as Prokofiev, Sibelius, Strauss, Shostakovich, Stravinsky etc. would have 'grown up' with the sound of orchestras adopting the 'traditional' layout. The 'modern' layout only really became predominant from the 1950s and so it is unlikely that it would have truly influenced the writing in the majority of works from these composers.  How many works would really have been written to take advantage of the violins being seated together?

There are also arguments of pragmatism thrown around. Certainly, there are pieces in which it is far more straightforward to have the violins seated together. The division of the violins in Shostakovich's 5th symphony is a classic example of this.  However, this did not stop Mravinsky using the 'tradional' layout or Gergiev or Eschenbach, in this piece.  It just requires more thought. 

In amateur orchestras, second violin sections often feature weaker players who will either sink or swim if placed to the right of the conductor. I have found that, more often than not, such players rise to the occasion rather than lose confidence. Once these players are accustomed to the new sound world on stage they tend to adjust well. I have also found that seating them to my right increases their confidence when they would otherwise have been hidden away behind the firsts.  However, a conductor would be unwise to adjust the seating upon their first visit to an orchestra. This could rapidly diminish the already fragile nascent relationship between guest conductor and orchestra. In amateur ensembles, such seating adjustment takes time unless it is instituted at their outset.

I think it will be obvious, then, to the reader that I consider the seating of violin sections together to be uncalled for in both amateur and professional circumstances.  There are rare exceptions in which the conductor should consider seating them together but the uniform expectation of such a layout is merely a generational 'blip'. It is important that younger generations of musicians are educated in both the historical context and the virtues of antiphonal violins. Many well-informed colleagues and musicians still think that antiphonal violins represent some quaint 'European' style or that a certain limited period of repertoire justifies the layout on occasion. I am cheered, however, by the great musicians who have switched their allegiance over the years, even in their later years. I am thinking of Chailly, Rattle, Haitink, Gergiev and Barenboim. How I wish Mr Nelsons in Birmingham would do the same (alas, his mentor is Mariss Jansons, whose mentor was Karajan himself) and Mr Petrenko in Liverpool. This is not an argument for homogeneity between orchestras, something I bemoan often enough. Orchestras can, of course, differ in personality even if their violins are divided consistently.  Maybe the best and most reasonable outcome I can hope for is a healthy mix of the two layouts.

Still, looking back at those lists at the top of the post, I can't help feeling that Sir Adrian would indeed be pleased at the way things are going.

Photographic sources:,,,