Wednesday, 30 May 2012

On orchestral sound and warhorse concerti

This post, I suppose, follows on from my previous one, in which I tried to explain why I feel so strongly about the seating of violins in orchestras. However, I need not labour that point any further. In this post, I wish to explore further how orchestral sound has changed in modern times and why we, as listeners, should care.

As I write, I am listening to a new recording of the Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn violin concerti, performed by Ray Chen and accompanied by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding. Not long into the Tchaikovsky I realised that, whenever I listen to new concerto recordings or performances, I am far more interested in the orchestral accompaniment than the soloist's contribution. Given that I am a conductor, I don't suppose many will find this to be a surprise. I tend to find that if a soloist is particularly special then my attention can be prized away from the accompaniment to their star turn, whether they are serving the music at hand or detracting from it.

Daniel Harding (courtesy of
This disc is very good, I should add. However, I am most impressed in this case by the orchestra and conductor. The jury seems still to be out in the critical press about Daniel Harding but I have always been impressed by him both on disc and in the concert hall. He seems to be one of the wunderkinds who sensibly withdrew from the initial limelight to go and brush up their skills with 'lesser names' in Europe, such as the Bremen Kammerphilharmonie and now the Swedish RSO. My impression is that he takes great care over orchestral sound: dividing his violins is de rigeur for him, bass sound is full but lithe, mid (viola!) sounds are ever present, string articulation and phrasing in Romantic repertoire is punchy yet cultured, timpani sticks are generally on the hard side and woodwind contributions have personality. All of this adds up to my preferred sort of orchestral sound. 

Now, some of these things are relatively easy to achieve as a conductor (eg. seating plans, timp heads/sticks) and others will take much more time and skill and will, of course, depend on the orchestra both in terms of their 'usual' corporate sound and the individual players. Some of these things will require the conductor to be a very good communicator of their vision as not all orchestral musicians conceive the totality of what their orchestra sounds like. Why should they? However, the conductor can at least reassure him- or herself that they have an important role to play in this regard.

The Problem of Orchestral Homogeneity

Commentators often bemoan the fact that orchestras sound much more similar today than they did, say, fifty years ago. I do not disagree with this. Nevertheless, I can still play 'guess the orchestra' when listening to Radio 3 with some success. Many of the great orchestras still have traces, to lesser or greater degrees, of their 20th century personalities. I am going to pin the blame for the apparent trend towards homogeneity of sound on one Herbert von Karajan. This is an oversimplification, of course, but here's why:

Firstly, I should declare that, whilst I do own several recordings by Karajan that I treasure, on the whole I tend to steer clear of buying them. That is largely because I dislike the conception of orchestral sound that he cultivated, particularly in his later years. He was a most prolific recording artist and the 70s and 80s were choc full of recordings from him and the Berliners. His idea of 'perfect' orchestral sound seemed to be this homogeneous, blended sonority. Sure, the 'phwum' of the BPO sound is truly a wonder of nature but, on disc at least, it is often terribly opaque.

Herbert von Karajan - a conductor who knew what sound he wanted and how to achieve it.
As Karajan and the BPO became recording artists par excellence, so others began to emulate this idea of the 'perfect' orchestral sound. Other orchestras that were prolific on disc in the 80s, such as the CBSO and Oslo Philharmonic, fell into this trap of homogeneity and, whilst many of their recordings are exciting for other reasons, the orchestral sound is bland and uninteresting - devoid of personality. These ensembles have only in more recent times begun to redress this situation. It may be that the recording engineers, venues and/or early digital sound did them few favours, of course. In fact, most recordings from this era document the journey of many orchestras into homogeneity of sound.

The Berlin sound is still rather opaque on disc (EMI do their best, I'm sure, to work miracles with the acoustic of the Philharmonie). Combine this with the fact that I have never really been a Rattle admirer and the result is that I am uninspired with many of their recent releases. However, I am very impressed with their Digital Concert Hall, which allows everyone with a decent internet connection to see and hear many of their concerts past and present. For all that I have said about their sound, they are truly a force of nature and a joy to behold as musicians (not many orchestras will feature as many smiling and visibly 'feeling' musicians as this!).

I do not perceive the BPO to have the quintessential 'German' sound; that is, dark and warm string sonority and fruity woodwind (particularly clarinets) contributions. For this, I rely on the still-distinctive Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Dresden Staatskapelle, amongst others. Riccardo Chailly, who conducts the former, is well known for caring for and cultivating an orchestra's traditional sound, as exemplified by his tenure with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. He really has made the LGO Germany's current best and one whose recordings I have been lapping up. Many of Germany's 'provincial' orchestras retain a great deal of character, too.

Riccardo Chailly and Nelson Freire preside over a recording of the Brahms piano concerti in which the  Leipzig Gewandhausorchester really show off their sonority. Heartily recommended!
Other distinctive orchestras to listen out for include the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, now under the direction of our very own Andrew Manze. Take a listen to their new Brahms orchestral works set to hear some gorgeous bassoon playing and, wait for this, horn vibrato! What a difference such details make in today's so-called homogeneous orchestral sounds. You can find perky bassoonists in Andrew Litton's Bergen Philharmonic, another ensemble growing in personality and stature. The more familiar examples of distinctive sound include, of course, the Vienna Philharmonic (the original period instrument orchestra) and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, whose sound has developed in symbiosis with their wondrous hall acoustic. Chailly's Mahler cycle is a demonstration of their delicious woodwind sound and brass vibrato.

What of the UK Orchestras?

Closer to home, we now have the LSO not afraid to sport a wonderfully strident trumpet vibrato (usually under Gergiev but more generally adopted now) and a double bass section full of personality. Check out their Strauss Alpine Symphony recording under Bernard Haitink to hear all this in action. The LSO has always been the great chameleon orchestra, combining a trademark virtuosity but soaking up various sound cultures (European, American, Russian) as required by the repertoire and demanded by the conductor. The 'next best' (IMHO) LPO now has no less a cultured sound but an element of welcome grittiness as imparted by the ever-thinking Vladimir Jurowski. Their ability to switch their instruments for period-influenced performance is also second to none in the UK. The Philharmonia retains a solid and cultured European-ish sound but is sonically uninteresting to me.

The BBC orchestras this side of the Irish Sea tend to sport a punchy sound as imparted by their respective timpanists but tend to lack warmth, which can be useful in some repertoire. The BBCSSO is becoming warmer, however, under the direction of Donald Runnicles. I am excited about the return of Sakari Oramo to these shores to take to the helm of the BBCSO, which has largely been caretaken in more recent years. The Halle, under Sir Mark Elder, has cultivated a lovely string sound - reminiscent of Vienna in some ways. Lyn Fletcher, their excellent and approachable leader, informed me once that this was mostly unconscious but I did notice that the players sported a particular and similar vibrato that newer members probably absorb through osmosis.

American, French, and Russian Accents

Here I expect that I am descending into lazy stereotyping: American orchestras retain their reputation for machine-like precision imbued with a certain amount of European warmth. The Philadelphians are always worth a listen for their trademark lushness of string sound. You can still detect a bit of horn vibrato and the distinctive French woodwind sounds in French orchestras. A recent release of the Orchestra Nationale du Capitole de Toulouse under Tugan Sokhiev of Tchaikovsky's 5th symphony reminded me of this. More disappointingly, the stridency of brass sound that was once a feature of Soviet orchestras has been somewhat 'filed down' in their modern descendents, such as the Russian National Orchestra and the St Petersburg Philharmonic.


It is perhaps a little glib of me to suggest that Scandinavian orchestras have an element of 'coolness' to their orchestral sound. However, this is true to a certain extent and can lend a certain amount of objectivity to the music. I find it works well in 'indigenous' music such as Sibelius and Grieg. The Lahti Symphony and Helsinki Philharmonic have produced some of the finest Sibelius symphony cycles in recent memory.

Finally, I should mention that there are a number of young orchestras that have sprung up in Asia, in particular, that sport a rather clean and clinical sound but some, such as the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, do at least opt for a tasteful amount of trumpet vibrato in the Russian repertoire - nice! 

The fact that so many orchestras have retained their personalities, albeit somewhat diminished over the years, is one surely to be celebrated. It gives the listener much to enjoy and listen out for and is certainly a reason to keep buying their respective records. And, with all due respect to some fantastic instrumental soloists, it is reason enough to continue buying recordings of some of those 'warhorse' concerti that keep popping up!

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