Another Prom reflection post, this time back on my old hobby-horse of classical music performance practice.
A couple of nights ago’s Prom was done by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and I highly recommend watching it online while you can, here. Several things about it were remarkable from within the context of normal orchestral practice, and it seems worth pointing them out and asking why they work, if they do.
Visually, the most striking consistent feature is the absence of a conductor as such. The opening item, Stravinsky’s concerto grosso ‘Dumbarton Oaks’, was under the nominal control of the orchestra’s leader. Admittedly, it’s virtually a large chamber work, being performed here with 15 players. Another interesting feature, though – only four of those sat down (the two cellos and two double basses, and the latter were on stools so could more be said to sit up than down). The increased flexibility of the arrangement is obvious – and it helps a great deal with cohesion, since it’s fairly easy to stand, and if necessary move, so you can see a leader on the same level as everyone else; whereas big seated orchestras inevitably lead to ranked seating for the winds, brass and percussion at the back and a high podium for the conductor.
The standing performance wasn’t sustained through the rest of the programme, which was more genuinely orchestral and so probably made it impractical (though I was slightly disappointed). However, direction duties were taken over by Leif Ove Andsnes – the piano soloist, conducting from the piano in the 3rd concerto and the Fantasia for Piano, Choir and Orchestra by Beethoven, and a choral-orchestral piece by Schonberg.
Now, it’s reasonably well-known that the non-playing baton conductor is a relatively recent invention, and it’s become a fairly common conceit for authentic performance sticklers to direct from the harpsichord while playing continuo in Baroque works. It’s less often remembered that Beethoven conducted from the piano throughout his performing career, including premieres of the first seven symphonies (which raises the interesting question of what he played!).
The Mahler Chamber Orchestra are not a period-instrument ensemble, nor are they early music specialists (the name seems a giveaway here). Mainstream, if the term can be allowed to be meaningful here, orchestras very rarely take any notice of the original absence of conductor, or likely original dimensions of ensembles, certainly for anything as late as mature Beethoven, though even Haydn or Mozart might get a reduced string section. However, they are a chamber orchestra, and with direction from the piano (a full-size concert grand, mind you) go a string section of three double basses and the rest in proportion, which sits in a very different relationship to Beethoven’s pairs of woodwind, horns, trumpets and timpani than the post-Romantic string section which can be twice the size.
The CBSO and Chorus did Beethoven’s 9th symphony about a week earlier with such a string section, in fact; and an outsize choir, and horn and woodwind parts doubled in tutti passages (as opposed to solos); which certainly pointed the contrast with the Mahler Chamber approach to the same composer. I have to admit, I have difficulty avoiding the impression that Beethoven over-eggs the pudding in the ‘Choral’, whatever its popularity with audiences and pundits alike. A vast, unmanoeuvrable ensemble dependent on their (extremely histrionic and visual) conductor to keep them together is only going to add to the impression of flab.
For older traditionalist classical string players who were trained even more thoroughly than me to use vibrato all the time, the knee-jerk association of early music performance style is (always with implied italics and exclamation mark) using no vibrato at all! This debate underwent a significant change in gear a few years back, when ‘mainstream’ conductors started coming out in favour of straight tone (ie no vibrato) – not because it was used at the time of writing such and such a piece, but because they preferred the sound.
Perhaps there is something similar about the approach to Beethoven here. There was no attempt at rigorously historical performance as such (though curiously the trumpet players were using unvalved instruments, and the flautists appeared to have wooden (but fully keyed) instruments) – but some Early Music characteristic features were adopted, presumably on sheer taste. Certainly a smaller ensemble gives greater clarity to the sound – and I think Beethoven is Classical enough to expect clarity, to expect his audiences to be able to hear everything that is going on – and makes it easier to be tighter in playing.
Which is vital when performing a concerto conducted by the soloist, perhaps particularly a piano concerto since when the pianist is playing his efforts at visually leading are more or less constrained to bending from the waist like a classical Ray Charles. There are plenty of passages, usefully including the starts of movements in general, where Ove Andsnes could and did conduct; but also plenty of long stretches where he could not, and the orchestra had to stay together by ear, by a keen individual sense of rhythm, and by watching each other.
That group engagement, as opposed to joint focus on a single figure, almost inevitably gives a visual impression of greater involvement with the music. This orchestra are also unusually given to feeling free to look like they are enjoying playing, perhaps particularly at some of the more delightfully rococo touches that Beethoven will dig out from the music of decades earlier at will. That is perhaps eased by, or perhaps simply part of the same picture as, their relatively informal dress code – the men in dark suit and tie, though the women stuck with the truly hegemonic all black. If nothing else, while the overtones of politicians, bankers and corporate managers are unfortunate, it is a look that takes the players closer to what their audience might be wearing. No one in 2015 is going to turn up to a concert wearing black or even white tie, unlike the period roughly 1890-1920 when most of what are now considered immovable classical performance norms were solidifying and it would have been de rigueur. The gap is, of course, painfully obvious at the Proms, with the nearest audience group to the stage being the promenaders, standing for the duration at (I think) £5 a head and no advance booking allowed, never mind required.
There is one other consequence of having the soloist conduct. Normal practice for concerti from the good amateur up to the top professional level at present is for the orchestra to rehearse, and the soloist to practice, and then there to be literally a couple of rehearsals together before performing. This is presumably what led to the subtly appalling effect of a Proms version of the Beethoven violin concerto I heard a couple of years ago, where the orchestra were definitely interpreting Beethoven as late Classical, and the soloist was committed to a performance of Beethoven as seminal Romantic. It seems little short of inevitable that Ove Andsnes directed the rehearsals, as well as the concert, of the pieces he conducted. Inherently, this marks a break from the implicit understanding of a concerto as a solo accompanied by unimportant following music, towards an idea (common with the origins of the form at least) of it as being for a group including one or more particularly vital members (the soloist/s). If you have rehearsed together all the way, then the solo and orchestral parts are not detachable; inevitably decisions about phrasing and delivery will tend to be uniform where both have the same, or versions of the same, material; the performance is integrated, something which actually demands humility of the soloist to view himself as not personally playing all the bits of the piece that really matter (though in this case by way of compensation he gets to have complete artistic control rather than a power-sharing agreement with a pesky conductor).
There are two different, but not entirely separable, things going on here. One is the appearance of being engaged – personally and emotionally – with the music being played, which to any audience not entirely used to the genre is vital to the understanding that they too can engage with it. If everyone involved looks like a stuffed shirt being operated on invisible strings by the bloke (and it almost always is a bloke still, unlike player numbers which are getting pretty even) who stands with his back to you, then the ‘difficult’ nature of art music remains much more unbreached – a ‘difficulty’ which does not seem to have been felt to any similar extent by the rather vacuous and gossipy salon society of Regency England, or Vienna at the same time.
The other is simply a concept that steps onward in time are not necessarily forward in achievement. Historically accurate performance for its own sake has a bad reputation, and sometimes deservedly (though there are plenty of people, and I am often one, who honestly think pre-nineteenth-century music sounds better for a lot of the Early Music movement’s restorations). But it has taken the historically-informed movement to issue a serious challenge to the way pre-modernist music sounds in performance. Composers could demand special effects, lack of vibrato, specific unusual numbers of musicians, and so on as much as they like, but it did not reshape how anyone else’s music was played. The experiments of trimming down the enormous Edwardian symphony orchestra, exploring ranges of tone that had been out of fashion a couple of generations previously, and experimenting with varying forms of musical leadership come from backward-looking rather than forward-looking research, but truly bear fruit in being adopted by performers without a historicist agenda, and appreciated by audiences who are not informed purists.
Plus, no one really wants to have to play the violin wearing a bow tie, they just put up with it. The instrument always knocks the thing crooked anyway.