Magazine article The Spectator

Magic Formula

Magazine article The Spectator

Magic Formula

Article excerpt

Much space has been devoted to the question of what distinguishes a great orchestra from a competent one. One argument is that present-day ensembles have come increasingly to sound like each other, presumably because recordings have purveyed a kind of omnisound which has ironed out the idiosyncrasies of local tradition. Such a circumscribing of colour is a pity but at least in the case of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (heard at the Proms on 3 and 4 September under Daniel Barenboim) the impression was reinforced that within this modern context the leading American and German-speaking orchestras do have some sort of magic formula.

At bottom this is not so much a question of technique as that their players are willing to respond, instantly and without reservation, to what the conductor is asking from them, an off-shoot of finding it relatively easy both in American and central European cultures to express profound emotion within a highly disciplined and self-abnegating framework. This is not traditionally held to be true, for example, of the French and Italians, who have long had trouble producing front-rank orchestras. The British, by contrast and as the Proms routinely show, have all the technical fluency one could wish for - the envy of the world - yet the gut reaction seems so often to be missing, the last layer of commitment withheld.

Although they were audibly tired by the end of Mahler's Fifth (3 September) and showed some slightly uncertain tuning at times in Tchaikovsky's Sixth (4 September), the Chicago players performed with the commitment of a youth orchestra. Something in the American way of life - greater scope than in Europe to express oneself as an individual outside the work place? makes this possible. Barenboim was able to do whatever he liked and could be certain of being followed as if the instrumentalists were sitting right by his side and playing one to a part. In the main what he liked was to adopt mildly unfamiliar tempi in the interests of more affective phrasing; by which I do not necessarily mean he took things slower than usual; the last movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth was not milked, yet it came over as uncompromisingly as I have ever heard it, allowed to be the very essence of romantic expression.

At this level one takes it for granted that the string sound has that modern sheen which only the most perfect blend and tuning can yield (never mind that it is inauthentic for any music written before Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic made it such a desirable commodity); and that the principal players in each section have a distinctive way with their instruments when playing solo (a strong suit with the Chicago Orchestra). …

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