Monday, 15 December 2008

The 4th Best Orchestra in the World (allegedly)

There is a craze at present for lists of the top ten this and the twenty greatest thats. It is an appeal to the lowest common denominator and a rather nasty dumbing down. The current edition of a well known classical music magazine, we shall preserve its identity, and avoid giving it free publicity, by calling it Record Playing Machine, continues this trend by naming the world's twenty greatest orchestras. Of course, such nonsense is not new to the folk at Record Playing Machine. They have a regular column on the top ten inanely stupid things (opening movements say, or a what could have been a vaguely interesting one on recording venues which suggested the Usher Hall is good for that but not concerts, which can only suggest the author hasn't attended too many there).

But this was egregious hype and nonsense of the worst form. Had they said, here's a look at twenty great orchestras, by no means an exclusive or exhaustive list, just twenty bands we think are extremely special and here's why, I would have no problem. But no, it is saying these are the twenty, they are better than each other in this order, and the ones we've excluded are worse. Now, everyone has favourites. I have favourite conductors (Charles Mackerras and, of course, Donald Runnicles, and others such as Carlo Maria Giulini and Wilhelm Furtwangler if one widens the parameters to include the deceased), but I wouldn't try to claim either as the greatest, there are other great conductors, and it would be meaningless to elevate these two, other than to say that for whatever reason I find myself in sympathy with them more often. When you get to a certainly level, the distinctions become increasingly meaningless. Take some of the great orchestras I have been lucky to hear in the flesh: The Berlin Philharmonic, The Cleveland Orchestra (possibly my favourite for the sheer visual spectacle they bring to their stunning sound), The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, The Philharmonia, The Dresden Orchestra, all, and more besides, are exceptionally talented bands. The quality of a performance they may give on any one night is variable and dependent on many factors such as works, conductor, how the musicians happened to be feeling that day, whether it was unseasonably hot in the hall, whether Cancer was in the ascendent with Mars (okay, maybe not that last one, but you get the point). However, each has none the less been impressive on every occasion, but I cannot differentiate their greatness, and I do not believe that anyone else can either, or at least, not in any manner that is in any way meaningful.

So, what of Record Playing Machine and their list. In many ways there aren't too many outrages. The top three, the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics and the Concertgebouw, are all unquestionably great orchestras, so too the Chicago, Bavarian and Cleveland a little further down the list. The main quibble would be with Britian's entries. Or, rather, entry: The London Symphony Orchestra. Not only does it come fourth but it is the sole entry from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. To say I was surprised at this would be something of an understatement. That's not to say the LSO isn't an excellent ensemble it its day. I have CDs to prove this, such as Colin Davis's live recordings of Sibelius's third and seventh symphonies, Barbirolli's Heldenleben or Bernstein's Mahler two. More to say that that day isn't today. To put it another way, when I am in the presence of greatness, it should generate a wow response, even if the individual reading isn't to my taste, I should still be in awe of the quality of playing, as was the case for the Bavarians in November or as has been the case with the Clevelanders and the Berliners. In recent concert going I have not experienced this reaction with the LSO, indeed, I have been somewhat disappointed by their quality. The only exception was performance of Bernstein's Mass under the baton or Marin Alsop some three years ago, but that was awesome more for the inherent spectacle of the work.

Fair enough, you might say, except that there are British orchestras that have wowed me regularly and recently. To start in London, there is the Philharmonia. Nowhere could the contrast be more clear than in an electrifying performance they gave under Knussen at Aldeburgh this year, which included Schumann's Konzertstuck for four horns, which provided a showcase for the orchestra's impressive horn section. The Birtwistle that followed allowed the whole ensemble to shine. Now, it's true that they had the advantage of the Maltings and one of the finest acoustics in existence, whereas the LSO is hobbled by the Barbican, but if anyone is going to argue that the LSO's greatness is simply masked by a poor hall, I think it would behove them to check the thickness of the ice on which they are standing. Similarly, the brilliant power I have heard them bring to Janacek at the Festival Hall outclasses the fourth place band (albeit those performances where under Janacek supremo Charles Mackerras, but a great orchestra should shine as great whomever stands atop the podium, certainly the fourth greatest should).

Then there is the LSO's current choice of music director. Gergiev certainly has a flair for certain more flamboyant parts of the Russian repertoire, as he demonstrated in Edinburgh this summer. However, his cumulative programmes with the orchestra show a worryingly narrow repertoire, something that is not, in my view, conducive to greatness. Then there is his recent Mahler. Now, these recordings do have their adherents, but for me they are something a train wreck and Gergiev seems both to often lack any concept of piano (something a friend who saw his Edinburgh Prokofiev performances also found) and, more critically, to conduct the music like a man late for an appointment. So much so that the fourth best orchestra in the world does not always keep up.

Of course, the inclusion of one such orchestra over another is a matter of taste. The problem is the article implies that the UK has just one great orchestra this is it. I'm sure there are people who genuinely prefer the LSO, though on current form I am interested to hear a justification. The problem is that it isn't just one orchestra. I hear greatness in the Royal Opera House Orchestra, The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and not simply when conducted by Donald Runnicles and the City of Birminigham Symphony Orchestra (the LPO is only excluded from this list as I have not heard it in concert for some years so cannot judge it one way or the other, similarly Mark Elder's Halle). All have impressed and wowed me in ways the LSO never has in the concert hall. And, while I don't personally include the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, I have heard brilliance from them in recent performances that outclasses the LSO, a marked contrast would be the horn section, who last night were brought to their feet for what was, in comparison to what the Scots are capable of, fairly mundane. Fourth best orchestra in the world? I think anyone would struggle to convince me that the LSO was currently one of the best orchestras in the country right now let alone the world.

The list gets more and more bizarre as it works down. At eighth and ninth are the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. I have only heard the LA Phil once, in a disappointing concert of Sibelius. My brother assures me that their presence at a past Edinburgh festival was much more impressive; perhaps so, and the concert I saw was at the end of a long tour. But if you're one of the best orchestras in the world, such things shouldn't hobble you. In their 2006 stay in Edinburgh the Budapest produced little to impress and a lot that didn't. How are these bands on a list that omits Abbado's Lucerne orchestra? Or, for that matter, his Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, which regularly wows me with stunning playing in a way many of the professional selections do not. Then, at thirteen, the San Francisco Orchestra of Michael Tilson Thomas (or Michael Tilson [four letter word beginning with t] as one friend of mine calls him after a particularly unimpressive Edinburgh performance). Come again? In two concerts, and one CD, they failed to produce a single note of jaw dropping quality.

So, why this rant against a magazine article that prompted me to, at long last, drop the subscription that I've been threatening to drop ever since they bumped Mackerras's 80th birthday from the cover with barely a mention to instead wallow in self-congratulatory glory at their 1000th issue (and thence celebrate their ability publish some pieces in columns just three words wide, an unfathomable decision that has still to be justified or reversed and which, if the letters page is anything reliable to go by, has had no criticism, which suggests it isn't terribly representative). Well, last night I went to the second of the eight concerts with the fourth greatest orchestra in the world, which I have lined up for this season. Once again, Daniel Harding was conducting, and once again there seemed to be a serious lack of chemistry between conductor and orchestra (but, as I have mentioned, greatness should shine through something like this; it didn't). One good measure of this, so says a former professional player I know, is how quickly the orchestra get to their feet for applause after the conductor motions for them. Those who remain resolutely seated only do so for conductors they like (the LSO were quick last night). That said, many orchestras hated Solti, yet he frequently got stunning results; but then there was no lack of chemistry there, just a more violent and less convivial kind.

First up was Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, which was given a performance that was bland and dull, two words which it is rarely possible to apply to the composer's music. Things only really caught fire in the finale, but by then it was rather too late. Bartok might have added Coughing to the list of instrumentation, so loud and repeated was some of the audience participation. Now, I don't like to get too bogged down on such things (and they are beyond the artists control), but if people do have to attend with such a cough, they might have the consideration to bring a handkerchief to mute the sound. Similarly, the couple at the end of my row who arrived late, as the doors were just closing, made a loud fuss and were, wrongly, admitted by the staff to clatter loudly to their seats during the opening bars. As the chairs were rearranged afterwards they had the temerity to moan about how poorly they'd been treated: if you can't arrive in good time I have no sympathy. I go to a lot of concerts and have been late only once - when we had failed to note that this one concert had an earlier start than the others.

This was followed by the world premier of Helios Choros II by Augusta Read Thomas. We were told in the programme that she was concerned it might not stand apart from I and III (the triptych making one large ballet score). Such worries seemed fairly groundless. Then again, perhaps the rather uninvolving piece becomes more so in context. It didn't seem to display the brilliance of, say, Ades. At the least it did seem to provide something of an orchestral showcase, that is to say, have the potential so to do, but for reasons given above it didn't. Similarly, when I hear the Bavarians, or even a smaller orchestra such as the SCO, the section leaders really shine as soloists. Not so today's LSO.

The applause from a Barbican hall that was at best around half full was muted and the second curtain was, despite the presence of the composer, something of a stretch.

After the interval it was the turn of Brahms: Lars Vogt joined the orchestra for the first piano concerto, long a favourite of mine. I've only heard it live once before, and that was not without problems. In the first place the ham-fisted Richard Goode was at the keyboard with his mumbling style of pianism and fistfuls of wrong notes. He was not ably supported by Fischer's Budapest Festival Orchestra who showed why they deserve their place as the ninth best orchestra in the world when they tuned the to oboe and not the piano, and thus orchestra and piano were out of tune with each other. Nothing like real professionalism. And it wasn't as though the piano wasn't sitting right there on the stage as a clue either.

Things were better last night. For starters, Vogt is a far superior pianist and orchestra and piano were at least in tune. But thereafter the improvements stalled. A complaint I levelled against the LSO last time was particularly apparent in the wonderful orchestral opening: they were not as tight as could be the case. But Vogt's pianism was beautiful, perhaps not with quite the clarity of Paul Lewis, but certainly lovely to listen to. When, that is, you could hear him, for too frequently Harding proved an insufficiently sensitive accompanist. Now, it's true that there is inherently some of this in the work, a Furtwangler first concerto would have been fascinating for this reason, as you suspect any soloist would have been utterly drowned (sadly no such exists on disc that I am aware of, and he may not even have performed it). But, with Furtwangler's majestic Brahms one wouldn't have minded too much.

And when the orchestra did come in heavily, particularly in the first movement's great climax, while there was volume, there was somehow a lack of occasion. It also was another of those too frequent concerto performances where conductor and soloist did not seem quite on the same page. A far cry, then, from the near telepathic link that Fleisher and Szell seem to share on their famous recording. Vogt's beautiful playing rescued the middle movement but otherwise things were largely disappointing.

It will be interesting to see how the orchestra make out under the next two batons. They have no lack of chemistry with their former music director Sir Colin Davis, and the presence of Christine Brewer for the Verdi Requiem should be worth hearing regardless. Perhaps LSO regulars know something I don't, in that that is sold out for two performances whereas Harding hasn't been. Brewer returns a few weeks later and is joined by one Donald Runnicles for a programme of Strauss, Mahler and Wagner. Watch this space to see what, if any, brilliance is displayed then. It seems that Harding's concerts are to be avoided in next year's booking, and possibly replaced by more from the less conveniently located Philharmonia.

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