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.