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Rehearsing and Recording - Arthur Butterworth

What sort of rehearsal arrangements were customary in Bach's time for the regular Sunday performances at the St. Thomaskirche in Leipzig it is perhaps hard to know. Latter-day academics have speculated and claim to know how things were done, but we are never likely to know precisely how they managed. What sort of overall preparation might "Messiah" have had at the first performance in Dublin, one wonders? In Haydn's and Mozart's days things might not have been much different. I is said that at the first performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, only the soloist had actually seen the part and practised it beforehand; the orchestra played it more or less at sight.

So what kind of public performances resulted? Since recordings did not exist we shall never really know. Habeneck, the French conductor spent more than a year rehearsing the Beethoven 9th Symphony with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra before attempting a public performance, calling forth the admiration - and indeed the envy - of Berlioz and Wagner both of whom constantly complained of lack of sufficient rehearsal time

Certainly since the later years of the nineteenth century performance practises on the continent - especially in Germany - have demanded considerable rehearsal time. It is expected by orchestral players that they will be called upon to spend many tedious and boring hours in rehearsal, often in playing through music they are already familiar with: the classical symphonies, overtures, concertos.

But time is money … In Britain it has never been quite the same as on the continent. Players in this country have long been regarded as the finest sight-readers in the world; able to play virtually anything put before them. This might not, of course, always have meant performances of the finest interpretative insight but remarkably compelling for all that.

In the earlier days of the classical recording industry it was probably axiomatic that only after considerable familiarity with a work - thorough rehearsal and several concert performances - would it be possible to contemplate recording it effectively. There were good reasons for this: the 4½ minute discs had to be flawless; there was no going back to make minute corrections as there is nowadays with modern technology.

Without the intention to record a new work it was more or less routine in England for a concert only to be afforded one rehearsal. Sir Henry Wood's Promenade Concerts were economically possible with but the one three-hour rehearsal on the morning of the actual concert. It is amazing to reflect what was achieved in this way; new and technically demanding works heard in London for the very first time with but one "run-through"!

However, while it has in more recent times become possible - and to pay for - extra rehearsal, this is by no means always the situation.

The Cheltenham Festivals of the 1950s provided an example of what could be achieved with thorough and adequate preparation. The Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli spent a week each July in presenting new works. This was preceded by a whole week of rehearsals in Manchester before the orchestra travelled to Cheltenham. It was a great privilege for me to have my own First Symphony given its first performance there in 1957. I find it hardly credible now to reflect on the fact that the Symphony had no less than a total of nineteen hours of rehearsal! This included the first hour of reading through it, which I conducted myself in the Royal Hall, Harrogate, while Barbirolli listened; followed by sectional rehearsals in Manchester the following week and a final rehearsal at Cheltenham on the morning of the performance. The enormous prestige and finesse of those Hallé performances at Cheltenham in the halcyon days of the 1950s were due to the meticulous, detailed rehearsals which Barbirolli demanded, and it paid off handsomely. I have conducted this First Symphony a few times since, but the most rehearsal it has been allowed has been around three hours in total, sharing time with having to rehearse other - more routine and familiar - things in the programme.

However, even three hours might seem reasonably generous in the context of recording practice. It is nowadays routinely possible to make a commercial recording of a new and unfamiliar work on the "rehearse-record" principle. This is possible for two good reasons: The technicalities of the recording process itself allows minute corrections to be made in the progress of recording itself, so that minute flaws of every kind can be more or less immediately erased by the recording engineer - always himself a most astute and percipient musician as well as being an electronic technician. In this way a passage can be played, and assessed as it is being rehearsed, and then immediately "performed" - in other words recorded and preserved. The second reason is equally if not more significant: orchestral players - especially in this country - are so technically proficient, and (what is more) musically gifted that it is ever more possible to give a compelling and wholly persuasive performance on record. The same applies to recordings made in other countries nowadays; the actual "need" - as some conductors would put it - for intensive, repeated rehearsal does not now seem to be so compelling as once it might have been. Of course, there must always be the consideration that repeated concert performances of a work ensure a familiarity to the performers that a "rehearse-record" situation cannot quite bring about. However, we live in a world not just of artistic idealism but of practical economics, and we must take account of this.

Arthur Butterworth
March 2009


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