Saturday, 10 October 2020

The Greatest Brahms Symphony Cycle You’ve Probably Never Heard

Gerard Schwarz is one of those conductors who, for whatever reason, just isn’t fashionable now. His sizeable discography suggests that perhaps he was at one time - or at least that the CD recording boom of the 1990s was kind to him.

His recordings have been a fascination of mine for a while, not least because of his preference for antiphonal violins at a time when hardly anyone else did it. He is mainly associated with two major orchestras with whom he held music director posts with: the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.

A few years ago I stumbled across his Brahms symphony cycle, recorded with the Seattle Symphony between 2007 and 2010. Until recently it hasn’t been widely available and I bought it directly from the Seattle Symphony website. It was one of those symphony cycles I found myself listening to from start to finish - and there aren’t too many of those. Barenboim’s Schumann cycle is another such example for me (sadly deleted from the catalogue at the moment).

What marks out this Brahms cycle from the countless others out there is quite hard to describe. There’s nothing flashy: no interpretative quirks or spotlighting in the recording. Schwarz lets this astonishing music speak for itself. As a conductor, achieving this is not a passive act of simply letting the orchestra play the music with no interpretative direction - it’s far more difficult than that. Orchestral musicians each (and collectively) come with their own ideas about how this music should be performed, either from their own or others’ performing traditions. Persuading them to leave these at the door and look at the works afresh requires diplomacy, will and skill on the part of the conductor.

What we hear in these recordings is a fairly natural concert hall soundstage, albeit a touch over-resonant and lacking in the mid-frequency range (by which I mean violas). There is a Central European feel to the sound, with a generous cushion of strings founded on a firm bass and wind instruments not overly prominent. Tempi are generally broad, relentlessly so at times with Schwarz refusing to put his foot on the accelerator (or brake) where many others are tempted to do so for effect. This only intensifies the music, the counterpoint in particular.

The contrabassoon unexpectedly emerges in the sound picture where so often you don’t hear it in the first, third and fourth symphonies. You really don’t hear it in most recordings, which makes me wonder why the poor players were even booked! It’s not crude or overbalanced - just there. Trombones the same.

All the repeats are there, even sounding natural in the first symphony. The final wonder for me: that triumphant chorale passage in the finale of the first symphony. In tempo! And all the more thrilling for that. (It’s how I do it, too).

Fortunately, these recordings are now more widely available in a Naxos box set ‘The Gerard Schwarz Collection’. So go get them - though you’re probably best streaming them if you don’t want to invest megabucks. Just don’t tell me they’re boring.

PS - check out some of his other recordings as well, while you’re at it. The Dvorak 6 is also a wonder.

Thursday, 4 June 2020

The Album Thing (and the beginning of a love affair)

Most of you will have come across the 'ten albums' thing on Facebook that has been circulating since lockdown began. The premise is that people post ten albums that have great meaning to them on Facebook without explanation whilst tagging friends to take part at the same time. Having now been tagged three times I feel I can't avoid the exercise any longer.

I've been thinking about this quite a bit and have decided to post the ten albums here with explanation. I know this is against the rules, sorry, but if you can drive from London to Durham in lockdown and all that...

Anyway, I wanted to include explanation as these ten albums are a fond look back at the beginning of my love affair with classical music, around the age of 18. Sure, I'd played classical instruments since childhood but I'd not really appreciated or loved the music properly until then. My story goes like this...

Film music is a way into classical music for many people and it was no different for me. It helped that I was a total Star Wars geek in my teens. The music from the films couldn't fail to make an impact on me and I had to have it to listen to in my shiny new personal CD player. Here also began my love affair with the London Symphony Orchestra. The LSO of the seventies was by then a thrillingly virtuosic orchestra and perfect for symphonic film scores like this. 

But it wasn't until I woke up to the final movement from this symphony on Classic FM one morning as I was struggling with a major relationship breakup, that my classical music journey really took off:

Apologies for the poor photo quality. I discovered this CD in HMV after hearing that amazing music on the radio. Here began my love affair with the music of Sergei Prokofiev. He remains my favourite composer to this day. I'm fascinated by his personality as well as his musical genius and those two things are inextricably linked. This is clear when you read his diaries. For me, his music is open-hearted and direct, which is perhaps why it resonates with me so much. I can't possibly document his whole output and life story here but in his later music composed in the Soviet Union it is quite obvious to me when he is being sarcastic and when he is being genuine. I don't imagine many of the Soviet officials could tell the difference, such was his genius.

Russian music has long been a staple of mine. Prokofiev's music offers a glimpse both forward into modernism and backwards into Russian nationalism. It was easy to move into the music of Stravinsky and Shostakovich from there as well as Rimsky Korsakov and the world of the 'Mighty Five' nationalist composers.

Musorgsky (oh how we love all the different spellings of Russian names) didn't write a huge amount of music. He was obviously a troubled guy. What he did write depicts, for me, a raw picture of the Russian soul (inasmuch as a random English guy like me imagines). I'm not a massive opera fan but Boris Godunov and Khovanschina contain some of my favourite music and harmonic progressions. Claudio Abbado's Musorgsky albums are so important as he really is the advocate for the composer on disc. The LSO once again is on terrific form in the above album, particularly in the fantastic original version of St John Night on a Bald Mountain (or whatever it gets called variously). You won't want the Rimsky version ever again once you hear that. No other conductor gets close.

For someone who has conducted more Beethoven than anything else, it may come as a surprise to know that I avoided his music like the plague until about 2003. I was young and naive and basically couldn't see the attraction to such 'tonic dominant' music without colour and interesting orchestration (see above). I was a postgraduate student in Manchester at this time. Then I heard Beethoven on period instruments. That changed everything. Those colours I couldn’t hear before? Right there all of a sudden. It was mostly bands like the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment I was hearing at that time on radio broadcasts but I soon moved on to the new wave of Beethoven recordings from chamber orchestras with a period feel.

This set in particular spent a long time in my car CD player but looking back now it’s a pity Harnoncourt didn’t go for antiphonal violins as that spoils things for me a bit now. Curiously, these kinds of recordings and performances helped me eventually appreciate the kind of ‘big band’ Beethoven performance style that I’d been repelled by for so many years previously. I can take Beethoven most ways now (though I’d say chamber orchestras remain my preferred purveyors).

The period instrument movement and chamber orchestra treatment of Beethoven led me to similar approaches to Mozart, Haydn, Schubert and Schumann, which deepened my connection with these composers. This was all around the time I was training to be a conductor and forming my own chamber orchestra. These styles have heavily influenced my approaches when conducting these composers but I have to say recordings like the above are my guilty pleasures and I’ve increasingly swung back to broader tempi in more recent years. I have to say I’m not the greatest Barenboim fan but it is time to talk about a recording from my conducting hero who just might have had a massive influence on me.

Sir Colin really is one of my great conducting heroes and a man I was lucky enough to meet and observe in rehearsal as well as concert. As with Prokofiev, I am fascinated with his personality - something of a sharp-edged and fiery fellow in his younger days but who made the transition to a calm, wise and kindly master who was most understated about his own position in the music-making. His style is unmistakeable, however. He gave space to the music: space for it to breathe, space between phrases, space for an upbeat. He had a fantastic and unmistakable baton technique, wielding the stick like a sabre, yet with the utmost clarity.

This brings me to Elgar, not a composer I had any affinity for prior to hearing this recording. It was the way I came to know Elgar symphonies and so I was quite shocked to realise subsequently that most recordings of these works do not sound like this! Many of his ‘Indian summer’ recordings like this on LSO Live are revelatory in their own way. The sound is, of course, far from ideal in the Barbican acoustic but once your ear adjusts it’s fine. While we’re talking about late Romantic...

Here’s how I got into Mahler. This composer once seemed impenetrable to my younger self. I guess at the time Sir Simon moved to Berlin I had only recently got into attending classical concerts and so I sadly missed most of his Birmingham tenure. His somewhat god-like status around here led me to check out this recording (as well as the concert video relay). It’s Rattle at his best, finding all those fantastic crunch points in the music and playing them for all they are worth. I don’t rate his recordings generally but his Mahler is always worth a listen. It’s not my library choice now (that remains Chailly with the Concertgebouw), partly because the horns are woefully under-balanced, but I do like to go back to it every now and then. If you like it then go on to Abbado and then Chailly.

It wouldn’t be right to talk about my love affair with classical music and not mention Brahms, who remains my second favourite composer. He is still a composer who divides opinion even amongst people with a great appreciation of classical music. I can see why - it’s not music that’s easy to ‘get’ unless you’ve either played it or really found that magical recording that converts you. Two discs are particularly special for me:

Be warned, this is music that is likely to ‘get you’ if you’re feeling in any way sensitive or emotional. More than that, though, it’s the sound of the natural horn (preferred by the composer over the more modern valved instrument) that works so well that makes this first choice for me. Then there’s these:

That Gewandhausorchester sound! Rich, dark, fiery. These are epic performances by a fine and un-showy pianist. I’ve a lot of time for Chailly, too. He really transformed the orchestra into what it is today - and brought back antiphonal violins!

What to choose for my final album? I considered going for something I have been listening a lot to recently. I guess I actually have so many different recordings of the works I love that it makes it hard to narrow them down. Having cycled through many beloved composers in my head I have alighted on...Mozart.

This set was a revelation. The sound - a modern instrument chamber orchestra with natural horns, trumpets and timpani - is just spot-on for this repertoire. I don’t know any other recordings that come close to this though many have merits of course. If I could bottle this style and hear Haydn, Mozart, Schumann, Beethoven and Schubert in it I certainly would. This orchestra has, of course, recorded these other composers but none have the impact nor freshness of Mackerras here.

So, that’s my album thing. Just a snapshot of the hundreds of recordings I’ve listened to over the years. Maybe the list would look different on a different day but it’s nice to get chance to look back at my journey into classical music, which thankfully never gets tiring.

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:

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:



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.