Monday, 26 March 2012

Is Sir Colin more HIP than he lets on?

Jessica Duchen's fascinating interview with Sir Colin Davis has rather become the talk of the Twitter- and blogo-spheres. Her thoughts on the interview can be found here and on that blog you will find that I am certainly not the first to comment at length on the matter.

I should declare first of all that I am a great admirer of Sir Colin and he sits firmly in the number one spot in my list of most admired living conductors.  It is not often that we hear from him in the public domain and on those occasions that he does I cherish the nuggets of wisdom that frequently pour forth.  He has always been one to speak his mind and it is refreshing to hear him dispensing with notions of ego and power on the podium (though he has acknowledged being susceptible to these things in his younger days).

Nevertheless, his latest views on 'historically-informed practice' seem rather extreme and his naming and shaming of two of his colleagues (Norrington and Gardiner) is unfortunate, particularly as the latter is a frequent guest conductor of 'his' orchestra.  Now, I happen to disagree with Sir Roger's 'zero tolerance' approach to vibrato (more on this later) but he has certainly produced some excellent concerts and recordings through his work with period instrument groups and modern instrument orchestras (The LMP Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann and Mendelssohn symphonies spring to mind as well as a more recent Stuttgart Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique).

Ms Duchen also mentions that her first choice for Schumann's Symphony No 1 was the recording by the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique under Sir John Eliot Gardiner.  I have just re-listened to this recording and it is certainly a strong contender in the field (I am a Schumann lover and cannot bring myself to pick a winner but this would certainly make my shortlist!).  Irrespective of period instruments and manners, it is clear that it has poetry, surely an essential ingredient for Schumann.  Perhaps this is too abstract a description.  The reading, as well as being swift, muscular and lean, has much in the way of feeling.  It is not devoid of vibrato but that sort of thing is hard to analyse through listening alone.

This recording illustrates the fact that period performance practice and depth of feeling are not mutually exclusive, as Sir Colin seemed to be suggesting.  I am sure that his views are not as straightforward as all that.  He seems to be a man of pragmatism.  I have met him only once and very briefly at that.  I recently wrote to him to ask to attend some rehearsals with him and the LSO. Attending rehearsals with professional conductors is a great way for a student of conducting to learn but let me tell you this: very few actually reply to such requests.  The reasons for this, I'm sure, are manifold (for one thing, how often do the letters make it past the PA?).  However, Sir Colin was kind and gracious enough to reply.

I attended rehearsals of Haydn's Symphony No 92, Nielsen's Symphony No 1 and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 3 (Dame Mitsuko Uchida was the soloist).  Apart from me being partially deaf from a nasty cold, it was a splendid experience as you might expect.  I noted that critics found his performance of the Haydn symphony, in particular, free of period mannerisms.  This was not quite the way I interpreted things.  Whether through intention or not, there were a few things that distinguished the performance style from being defiantly 'big-boned'.  One was the use of hard timpani sticks, a feature that I have noted that Sir Colin's LSO has also used in his Handel and Mozart performances.  Another was discretion with vibrato.  This may be something the players adopt instinctively, having worked with various period instrument specialists such as Gardiner. Phrasing also suggested some HIP influence, though many of us consider 'feminine' endings to be just good manners.  The string body was reduced, too.  In fact, Dame Mitsuko successfully persuaded Sir Colin to keep the numbers the same for the Beethoven concerto, which suggests that Sir Colin had thought carefully about the numbers in the Haydn.

I am not trying to suggest that Sir Colin is a closet HIPster.  I do suspect that he is simply pragmatic, rather than dogmatic, on the issue.  His approach would seem to transcend the issue rather than being extreme in the other direction in such a way as Christian Thielemann, for instance:

Whilst I am not the greatest fan of the approach, here, I must confess to admiring Thielemann's baton technique (derived from the Nikisch/Boult tradition, as is my own).

Sir Colin's Haydn symphony recordings with the Concertgebouw Orchestra (as it was then) in the 1970s are notable for their lucidity and charm, often selected as benchmark recordings.  I'm not sure that they would have enjoyed such success if they had been recorded with, say, the LSO of the time or the Boston Symphony, for example.  The special sound of the Concertgebouw (a symbiotic relationship between the players, instruments, performance tradition and, of course, the hall) provides much of the lucidity in the readings.  Texture, perhaps then, is the key.

For me, and I am sure many others who 'grew up' in the midst of the period instrument revolution, what opened the door for me to the music of Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart (just to name a few) was the textural clarity that period performance brought.  There was a time when I would not attend symphony orchestra concerts because there was a Beethoven item on there.  I'm sure it was because I did not 'get' him at that point.  Nevertheless, hearing period instrument performances on the radio or in recordings really made me sit up and listen to this wonderful music.  All those interesting facets of orchestration, so often lost in the homogenised sound of the modern symphony orchestra (at least ten or fifteen years ago): the wonderful hard timpani strokes, the 'pinched' hand-stopped notes of the natural horn and the clarion calls of the valveless trumpets, inner woodwind detail revealed once the opacity of the string chords had been chipped away.

Having once turned my back on Beethoven, I went on to establish a chamber orchestra named after his greatest symphony, the 'Eroica'.  Central to our aims has always been to "ensure an exciting listening experience" for the audience.  We are almost at the end of our complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies and concertos now and have also embarked on a similar Schumann cycle. Back in 2005, I requested that all vibrato in the strings was stripped away.  This had an immediate impact on the sound and it has been harder in some ways to re-introduce vibrato ever since.  It was folly to think that a vibrato-free sound would be attractive but it was a good starting point for the corporate sound.  Hard timpani sticks with 'period' timpani drums skinned with calf skin are de rigeur, as are antiphonally-positioned violins (perhaps more on this in a future post) and occasional natural horns.  Here is, warts and all, Eroica Camerata performing the finale of Beethoven's 2nd Symphony live in our very first concert in 2006 (crudely recorded on minidisc):

It is not a professional orchestra, though many of the players are performance students or graduates.  Our performances are on the back of just two rehearsals.  And on the subject of finales, here is a more recent (October 2011) excerpt showing how we have applied our sound to Schumann in his 4th Symphony:


I do not purport to be a scholar on these matters, beyond having read as widely as possible on the subject and listened to a great many performance styles. I was, however, inspired by the performances on period instruments and, interestingly, drawn back into the world of the modern symphony orchestra to love these works from all angles.  For me, texture is the key and, on this background, the depth of feeling in a performance will not be dependent on your style but on your substance as a well-rounded musician.  Sir Colin has this in spades, as do so many others, HIP or not... 

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Listening on a shoestring...

Listening is (or, at least, should be) something of a necessity on a conductor's person specification.  Clearly, we do it during rehearsal and performance but it is not often that conductors talk about the listening they do outside of this more public forum.  A few are occasionally spotted in the audience at concerts and the opera house but it seems that the majority of the more celebrated conductors are happy to perpetuate the idea that they somehow generate their inspiration in a vacuum, uninfluenced by their contemporaries and predecessors on the podium.

It was, therefore, refreshing to see, in a recent Gramophone interview, Ricardo Chailly discussing the conductors, past and present, whose performances had informed his interpretations in his exhilarating new Beethoven symphony cycle.  This great conductor had suddenly became a mere mortal and my respect for him only grew as a result.  He remains one of the few 'great' conductors to discuss such influences.

Similarly, listening and watching performances, past and present, has been a crucial part of my development as a conductor.  I have been fortunate to have lived in cities with world-class concert halls (Birmingham and Manchester) and, particularly as a student, have made these my second homes.  As a student in Manchester I would attend concerts maybe once or twice a week (oh, how I miss the student prices!).  Then, as now, I would find my eyes glued to the conductor, trying to work out exactly what gestures were producing this sound and that.

Live performance is but a small element of my 'non-working' listening, however.  The size of my CD collection, augmented by the invisible bulk of MP3 downloads, is testament to much of the rest. Surely, a conductor should be familiar with the recorded 'literature' in the same way that one might expect a writer to be familiar with the written and printed repertoire in their genre?  Perhaps this is not the most suitable comparison but I suspect that you will get my point.  We are fortunate to have the interpretations of great conductors throughout the 20th century preserved on disc or, even better, on video.  The multitude of clips available on YouTube allow us to study their gestures and interpretations as never before and see how the various schools and techniques of conducting have evolved.

All of this is a convoluted prelude to what I hope will be of use to anyone reading my very first blog. I wanted to share the apparatus through which I hear much of what I have referred to above: my headphones.  I have got through quite a number of different pairs over the years but I cannot claim to be any kind of expert in this matter.  However, the two sets that I currently own were an astonishing bargain and worth sharing with readers:

For home listening, these are a snip at around £20:

They have a very long cable for wandering around the room and the cable disconnects from the headphones, which is useful when you stretch it just that bit too far on your travels.  The sound really is very good for headphones in this price bracket.  The open back design means that nobody will wish to share the room with you due to the sound leakage but it ensures you get a really wide, open sound stage, so important for the classical listener.  I have not heard them distort yet, even during the loudest demonstration of the 'Resurrection' symphony.

For out and about (which is where I do most of my listening), try these:

At around £40, these are a great investment.  They are among the cheapest 'balanced armature' earphones I have come across but do give great sound after they have been 'played in' a bit.  Don't ask me about why this is necessary but the recommendation is to connect them to the 'white noise' of an FM radio between stations at a loud volume for several hours before use.  They are not bass-heavy and have those all important 'mids' that the classical listener craves.  Furthermore, they are loud even when driven by your mobile or MP3 player.  Increasing the volume towards the maximum will likely lead to some distortion or that niggling feeling that you might prefer a CD quality recording, however.  They're pretty robust and the double-twisted cable seems to prevent tangles and that annoying scraping sound generated when the cable flaps around.  There is a nice case for easy carriage, too (also good for stowing an engagement ring in...but that is another story).  I replaced the rubber in-ear attachments with foam ones that mould better to my ear canal, but that is a matter of individual anatomy.

So, while those chaps in the music magazines may direct you towards some rather expensive listening equipment that few can afford, why not give these a try.  Let me know what you think.  Furthermore, maybe you have your own suggestions as to the best earphones for classical listening.  I am all ears...