> THE ‘ART NOUVEAU’ OF ORCHESTRAL SOUND" Arthur Butterworth MusicWeb(UK)

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In early youth I was always struck with the sound of the orchestra: especially its fiery, brazen horns which struck so romantic a note, especially in Berlioz. There was always a feint frisson of excitement because it was known that the horns, those most intractable of instruments, were liable to split notes; this somehow added to the verve of the performances. The intrepid players did not play for safety, they played for exhilaration and Joie de vivre. It was all wonderfully exciting. I just longed to play in a large orchestra, little knowing that a few years later, the war being over, that is what in fact I should do. However, coming home on leave from the army - probably early in 1946, before being demobilised, I chanced to go to a concert in Manchester given by a visiting American orchestra, on its first post-war tour of Britain. But something curious struck me about it. I could not quite make out why it sounded so different from the Hallé of pre-war years. Lively and energetic though the American playing was, it all sounded rather slick, but at the same time paradoxically lack-lustre too, especially the wind playing, and certainly most of all the horn-playing.

What was different of course, was that in place of the traditional ‘french horns’ of narrow bore, they had been replaced by wide-bored instruments of German pattern, the so-called ‘double-horns’ - much safer to play - but far less poetic and lacking the romantic character of the earlier instruments. Not only the horns, but the other brass had changed over to larger-bored instruments; the ravishing sound of the wooden flutes had been replaced by the steely-bright sound of metal ones. The characteristic French bassoon was given over to those of Heckel type. String players began to rely on metal as opposed to gut strings. Within a comparatively short time there came about a virtual sea-change in the sound of orchestras in this country; we copied the German and American style. Now this is all very well for some music, and with the technical perfection demanded by the modern recording industry, players now play for safety and use the most up-to-date and reliable instruments they can find, and who can blame them? Whereas at one time a live performance was evanescent, disappearing for ever into thin air, flaws and human failings soon forgotten, the modern recorded performance exists into perpetuity, an ominous indictment of the players’ failings. But, slick and polished and virtually technically flawless, though modern orchestral playing, worldwide, has now become, there is often something missing: a sense of poetry and humanity in many of the performances one hears. Not only the modern instruments, but perhaps even more important the style of performance by individual players. aided and abetted by jet-setting conductors whose technical abilities may be excellent, but who often lack imagination and those qualities of insight and interpretation that make music sound human - even if at times there are technical flaws and shortcomings.

Certainly the younger generation: Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Walton, Copland, Britten, and those who have arisen since 1945 perhaps expect a more chromium-plated sound, but a vast amount of music, not necessarily just that of earlier twentieth century composers and their forebears, still cries out for a more human sound instead of the ubiquitous ‘orchestral super-market’ we hear so predictably in almost all the world’s concert halls, although the Vienna Philharmonic has always preserved a unique sound of its own, mostly on account of the use of instruments traditional to the Viennese: ‘Zuleger’ oboes, ‘Oehler’ clarinets and the particular characteristics of Viennese horn-playing.

It is not generally known, for example, that there was at one time, to the connoisseur at least, a distinctive ‘Manchester’ tone of clarinet sound, as there was in parallel with it an influential school of Lancashire oboe playing that originated with a group of wind players in the Hallé Orchestra which was ultimately to gain the upper hand in London and elsewhere in British orchestral playing. Of course, everything depends on the quality of sound produced by individual artists, but nowadays there is often a sameness about many players of the younger generation. That they are invariably of astonishing technical accomplishment is never in question but music making is not solely about technical wizardry; it is concerned with imagination, individuality, and above all humanity.

Stimulating as it is to visit the world’s great and sophisticated cities, there is often a faint sense of ennui to discover that the fashionable shops in the exclusive malls are much the same everywhere. The world-wide brands of coffee-house, furniture, textiles or food chains are ubiquitous, and the same snazzy model of car bought so recently at that exclusive showroom in Hampstead can be seen - perhaps to the mutual embarrassment of their drivers - on the streets of Munich or Stockholm.

The world’s great orchestras, rather like the fine cities they symbolise are much the same too. So that despite the personal quirks and mannerisms of international jet-setting conductors, who insidiously cajole or insist that the orchestras they visit interpret whatever it is they are performing in the maestro’s own individual way, the resulting sound tends to be pretty much the same whether it be in Chicago, Prague, Paris, Tokyo or London.

The New Queen’s Hall Orchestra however, has cultivated a sound of its own, recapturing the essence of a style we once cherished and, which regrettably now seems to elude us. In place of the present-day universal metal flute the earlier and more mellow wooden instrument is used. The ‘Buffet’ bassoon, essentially of French tradition, also regains that elegant sound rarely heard in today’s concert halls. But it is the brass which has undergone the most drastic change in character in the past half century or more. The horn in particular has endured a sea-change. While it is true that the modern ‘double-horn’ is safer for the player, its sound is a far cry from the ravishingly romantic timbre of the classic ‘french’ horn of earlier times. A parallel might fancifully be drawn between the one-time classic Hispano-Suiza racing car of the early days of motoring (when indeed it must have been an exciting and elegant pastime for rich young men), and a BMW saloon for today’s tedious motorway journeys. The trumpets and trombones with their wider bores are inclined to be overwhelming, lacking that bright, lithe sound that was once so exciting; while the cornet, once a subtle and contrastingly lyrical sound in the brass section of an orchestra has all but disappeared completely, conductors not seeming to care whether a composer’s original cornet parts are played on the instruments they were intended to be. But there was a time when a pair of trumpets sounded quite different from the antiphonal sound of the cornets answering them — for example in Tschaikowsky’s "1812" overture. The timpani’s round sonority is projected in the mellow sound of the traditional calf-skin heads of the hand-tuned timpani (still it must be admitted an admirable quality of modern timpani). However, it is in the overall sound and, even more significantly, the style of performance that the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra has evolved a unique purpose. The use of genuine older instruments has been made possible by enthusiastic individual members seeking out such rarities, and studying the technique of playing them in a style which is appropriate.

© Arthur Butterworth



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