Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Symphony Orchestras

I am never over-fussy about orchestras. Modern orchestras are filled with – often younger – players who can cope with most technical challenges. As I have mentioned before in this blog, I have the impression that one and two star orchestras can often make for more rewarding listening, since they try harder than their three star cousins, who are sometimes content to rest on their laurels or past reputations. This seems to be particularly true when it comes to accompanying soloists, and one suspects that – particularly in the past – major orchestras here often fielded ranks of substitute players, rather than the principals. There are many reports of conductors in the past having been nonplussed to discover that the orchestral personnel they were conducting at the actual concert did not entirely correspond to the orchestral personnel with whom they had been rehearsing!

All too often, three star orchestras have become “brands”, in the modern parlance, so much so that, a few years ago, the “Royal Philharmonic Orchestra” was caught out playing two different concerts in two different places; on the same evening! Common sense tells us that the Berlin Philharmonic of the 1930s will not be the same Berlin Philharmonic of the 1960s, or 90s, or the present day. Players change, and retire. Orchestras go through good periods, viz the Philharmonia in the 1950s and 60s, and weak periods, viz the London Symphony Orchestra in the same period. Conductors known for their orchestral training prowess, such as Toscanini, von Karajan, Stokowski, and others, can make a big difference fairly quickly.

Nevertheless, orchestras are not all the same. Russia, Scandinavia, Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and America have usually offered a range of fine orchestras whereas, for some reason, countries such as France, Spain, Italy or Greece struggle in any given period to offer even one orchestra of real international standard. France is particularly puzzling, since the country boasts a strong range of first-rate instrumentalists and numerous prestigious conservatoires. There are orchestras in Paris, Toulouse and Lille, but it is difficult to think of a famous French orchestra. As for Germany; the country bursts with fine orchestras, some with major “brand” images such as the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, not to mention the orchestras of Dresden and Leipzig, with superb orchestras all over the place in Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, Stuttgart and elsewhere – Bremen is a recent fine contestant. I am very fond of the recordings by Günter Wand that he made mostly in Cologne and Hamburg with regional German radio orchestras; to my ears, the orchestras sound fine and I do not miss their three star cousins.

Having said that, however, orchestras can make a difference in certain respects; Russian orchestras appear to dive into the music of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich in a particularly heart-felt way, as do British orchestras in the music of Elgar – and the Vienna Philharmonic in the music of Anton Bruckner. I marvelled recently at the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic in Bruckner's eighth and ninth symphonies (conducted by Carl Schuricht in the early 1960s); the sound was simply so right. In many respects, however, symphony orchestras are much like restaurants or wine: they have their good periods and their bad periods, good years and bad years, a change of chef can make a major difference as can a change of ownership or funding. Ah, the Concertgebouw orchestra of the 1970s vintage !

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