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Sunday, 25 March 2012

Can music bounce?

Part five

Judging an orchestral performance.
Sometimes the differences are enormous. Not surprising given the forces available and the indirectness of the process – the conductor imagines the perfect rendition and must then compel others to produce it. The difficulty is deciding whether two widely varying performances (eg, Beethoven by Klemperer and Toscanini) are both legitimate. This, I must confess, is often beyond me.

In sloppier performances the thing that goes first is texture: strings, woodwind and brass dissolving into a single noise instead of identifiable separate layers. This is harder to detect than I make it seem. The different orchestral sections are intended to blend of course. But a blend is a controlled mixture; the undesirable blur occurs when certain instruments are (fractionally) out of synch. The latter happens when the conductor’s cueing is less than decisive.

In most orchestral music rhythm changes frequently. In great performances rhythmic changes may be applied to tiny pieces of the whole – but without degrading the overall rhythmic structure. Thus small separate phrases flutter into and out of major themes, increasing the delicacy of what we hear. Getting this kind of performance out of an orchestra requires great control (and often great imagination) on the part of the conductor. Otherwise the result is much simpler and much more obvious.

In the best performance I ever heard – Brahms symphony 3, Herbert Blomstedt (see pic) , Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra – there was another quality which is hard to define. It was as if the music bounced slightly. I think this may have been due to the “attack” Blomstedt was achieving when music resumed after tiny periods of silence; a hurrying-up which, nevertheless, didn’t result in hurried music. If anyone better qualified to identify this effect can do so, I would be eternally grateful.


Plutarch said...

I once saw one of those workshop programmes on TV in which Leonard Berstein was conducting I think The London Symphony Orchestra in a rehearsal of Shostakovic's 6th Symphony. It greatly enhanced my appreciation of conducting skills, but it also made me enjoy all the more watching conductors and the orchestra responding to them. Is watching a distraction when listening to music? Can it on the contrary improve appreciation?

Lorenzo da Ponte said...

All masterclasses are worth watching even when the teacher is objectionable (eg, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf). I've learned an awful lot just from repeated instruction of very short passages.

Watching the conductor does improve appreciation, with this proviso. At Birmingham City Hall the cheapest seats are behind the orchestra which means one faces the conductor. This can be too much of a good thing since some faces are genuinely distracting. There are also other disadvantages: the orchestra's "stereo image" is reversed and the first violins are on the right rather than the left, the woodwind, brass and - often - the percussion create something of a sonic barrier in front of the strings, and the soloist in a concerto is now on the far side of the orchestra. I no longer use these seats.

The conductor's back supplies a sort of physical version of what one is hearing, although his/her movements are of course much more complex than simply beating time. Picking up the cues whereby other sections are brought in can be instructive, And sometimes one catches a glimpse of the conductor's face with an indication that things are going well. This latter point helped enhance the Brahms 3 I refer to above; Blomstedt looked absolutely ecstatic - managing to suggest he was part of the orchestra rather than merely the man at the steering wheel.