B5- The bands

I can’t help but smile at the fact that less than 24 hours after finishing my concert with the Contemporary Music Ensemble of Wales, I was rehearsing Beethoven 5 and the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Surrey Mozart Players.

Preparing the ultimate “warhorse” piece at the same time as a preparing four very little known and “difficult” pieces of modern music can’t help but underline the qualities that music of our time and music of the past share, sometimes in spite of the wishes of the composers!

Anyway, this is my second Beethoven 5 since Christmas, and I thought the hard core conducting fanatics might be interested to know how the two projects stack up. First, we compare the two orchestras and look at assumptions about the “right” orchestra for Beethoven….


The Band-

Both groups are chamber orchestras, using almost identical sized string sections (about 8 first violins in both cases, although the LCO performance had smaller cello and bass sections). Beethoven’s music works magnificently with small string sections, but it is a complete fallacy that Beethoven would have necessarily expected or even preferred a string section of this size to that of a modern symphony orchestra. In fact, the performance of the 7th and 8th symphonies used 36 violins, 14 violas, 12 cellos, 7 basses and doubled winds. Given that the instrumentation of the 7th and 8th is smaller than that of the 5th, 6th or 9th, it is very possible that the use of smaller orchestras for the premieres of those pieces was more an economic matter than an artistic preference on Beethoven’s part. Beethoven was careful to make his orchestral works adaptable to groups of different sizes. After all, he understood the perils of orchestral economics all-too-well, and wanted his music to be successful in all kinds of performing situations.

In fact, when using a large orchestra such as for the premiere of the 7th and 8th, Beethoven used to mark not only when the winds should and shouldn’t “double,” but also divided the string section into a reduced and full section. Contrary to what you may have read, Beethoven was not against doubling, and actually put thought into how to use doubling of winds in performances during his lifetime. The fact is, we can never know for certain whether Beethoven preferred or wanted a huge or a moderate sized orchestra– the evidence is inconclusive, but we can be quite sure that he understood the practical issues in working with different sized bands. Yes, a smaller orchestra makes for more transparent textures and ease of precision, but a bigger one (especially when deployed using a mixture of tutti and reduced sections) has a much bigger possible dynamic range (bigger string sections can play both louder and softer than smaller ones), and we know Beethoven was obsessed with getting the biggest possible range of dynamics out of the orchestra. Think of the description of Beethoven’s own conducting from Ludwig Spohr-

“whenever there was a sforzando he vehemently opened his arms which had previously been folded on his chest. To the piano he would bend forward – the lower, the softer he wanted it played. Then, when there was a crescendo, he gradually straightened himself up and when the forte arrived leaped into the air; sometimes even, he would shout in order to reinforce the forte….”

John Elliott Gardiner says on the discussion disc that accompanies his excellent recording that Beethoven felt that larger orchestras in his day were incapable of playing his music at his tempos, but, even if that were true then, it is certainly no longer true. While just slower than Norrington and Gardiner, both Karajan and Kleiber recorded the first movement of the 5th just a few metronome points short of Beethoven’s tempo using huge orchestras, and Solti’s own score (which you can find here) shows that he did the piece in the 90’s at the metronome mark, which is just as fast as the fastest performances with small orchestras. Also, even today, conductors not only continue to tend to take some movements slower than Beethoven marks, but to take others too fast. In just the last couple of years, two of my favorite conductors Haitink and Harnoncourt (whose performances were both said to be to various degrees historically aware and informed by the metronome markings) start the last movement of B5 faster than the Scherzo, in complete contradiction of Beethoven’s instruction to downshift from 96 to 84. In the end, tempo has nothing to do with the size of the band, and everything to do with how fast the conductor conducts.

In Lancashire, we sat the strings in the “normal” modern seating, with the violins together on my left, then violas then cellos on my right. In Surrey, we are seating the violins antiphonally with the cellos next to the firsts and the violas remaining in their usual position. Although I generally prefer this seating for a variety of reasons, there are many factors that go into deciding what will be the best setup for any orchestra. Leonard Slatkin has recently written an excellent post on this topic for Classical Source. Being dogmatic in the face of practical needs can cause way more harm than good.

For the LCO performance, we used hand horns, rotary trumpets and a trombone trio of alto, tenor and bass trombones. With SMP, we’re using modern horns, which cause balance problems in the first movement where they often have to balance with the woodwinds (bars 110-117 are almost impossible to balance using modern horns an un-doubled woodwinds), but solve problems in the last movement where they need all the power they can get (especially the second horn) in places like letter A. I haven’t heard yet about the trumpets, but even if we were using natural trumpets, which I would love to try, I would want to avoid the screaming-screetchy, completely out of balance kind of playing one tends to hear in many original instrument recordings. More likely, we’ll have rotaries again (the trumpets don’t come till later in the rehearsal sequence).

Both of these bands use modern timps, which isn’t ideal (although the timpanist in LCO was fantastic at working around the limitations of the drums). I love the sound of period timps in passages where Beethoven wants to really use them as drums or you want to differentiate between different kinds of strokes. For instance, at letter G in the Finale, Beethoven switches the timpani from a ff roll to sixteenth notes, something that is almost impossible to hear with modern drums, but works brilliantly on period ones. However,  where they have a more harmonic function, like in the transition from the 3rd to the 4th movements, they don’t really give you a lot of pitch (especially in soft playing- the softer you play a period timp the less pitch you get). Modern timps on the other hand can be way too muddy, and when you use hard sticks to make up for that, the plastic heads can sound, well, plastic. Viennese timpani seem like a perfect compromise to me- the leather heads (you can use leather on any timp, but they’re a pain in the but to work with) give you more articulation and clarity, don’t give you that nasty, plasticky smacking sound when you use wooden sticks, and yet they can ring and sustain when you want them to.

One thing I was very happy about at the LCO was the wonderfully furry contrabassoon playing- Gunther Schuller points out in his essay on B5 that one can rarely hear the trombones in the recordings of the last movement, and that you almost never hear the contra, which is a great noise.

Both of my groups use modern woodwinds exclusively. I’ve never done a performance with period winds, and would love to, however, their impact (especially in an extrovert piece like B5) tends to be less than that of the using period versus modern brass. In most ensemble playing, the differences in timbre get a bit lost, so it is only in solo writing that you hear a huge difference. Sometimes, this is fascinating, but modern wind instruments do project a bit easier, and sometimes the solo wind playing on period recordings can sound a bit frail (although there are plenty of astounding virtuosos out there nowdays). On the other hand, I always prefer wooden flutes in classical repertoire, as they seem to blend better, tune better and look cooler.

One instrument I don’t have much choice about is the most important one- LCO play in an intimate and very live room that really lets the orchestra’s sound develop and ring. SMP will be playing in the Electric Theatre, which is a very comfortable venue with excellent facilities, but lousy acoustics. Our first SMP concert this year was at Holy Trinity Church in Guildford, which has magnificent acoustics, but we lost a lot of our audience. Apparently, many of our regular listeners prefer the bathrooms and the bar at the Electric to the acoustic splendor of Holy Trinity. Just goes to show you that one should not think that correcting a dot to a dash is going to save society….

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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5 comments on “B5- The bands”

  1. ComposerBastard

    Well, here you spoke of orchestral sizes with B5, and it was really wonderful! But I am really really curious about Sibelius Violin Concerto with that few instruments in the string section! Any enlightening rehearsal observations here? isn’t it a bit thin for that expected warmness and ww/brass/string balance??

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hey CB-

    Good question. Chamber Orch of Europe recorded all the Sibelius Symphonies with Paavo Berglund a few years back and really claimed them as legitimate chamber orch repertoire, especially the 3rd onwards. The Violin Con is a bit earlier, closer in style to the 2nd Sym, and I wasn’t sure how it would work, but it sounds quite fab with our string sections so far. We certainly won’t have to worry about balancing the soloist, and the brass woodwind balance is fine so far…. Kinda like LvB

  3. Daniel

    Very interesting post. In terms of vibrato, what is your approach here? Minimal or none for the strings, and just a little in woodwind solos? Or a standard modern approach?
    Perhaps I am one of few, but I think performances of modern music would gain from a ‘less is more’ approach to vibrato – especially with instruments like the flute and trumpet.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Daniel-


    You’re asking a big question, one that I’ve written about before and will continue to tackle in the future. In short, I think that ours is an evolving art and that simply imidating the approaches of past performers, whether wigglers or non, is not enough. The HIP movement did us a great service by reminding us that vibrato is a powerful expressive tool, and not simply like flouride in water to be added in equal amounts to every portion. However, simply not using it strikes me as simplistic, even amateurish, when there is so much historical evidence that it something composers and performers thought intensely about in all historical periods. When to, how to, when not to and why no….

    I studied for a few summers with Ron Leonard, long principal cellist of the LA Phil. Early on, Ron gave me a deomnstration of at least 20 different typse of vibrato (that’s different forms of motion and points of contact, never mind the speed and width of that motion, or the related use of the bow). To talk about “vibrato” as a single effect one should or shouldn’t use seems misleading.

    Both Downie and Xenakis were careful to specify non vibrato playing in their piece this weekend, which seems to be a good course for composers. On the other hand, Paul Mefano asked for the cellist to play “very romantically and lyrically,” with lots of vibrato and for the violinist to play “neurotically, like Pauline in Ein Heldenleben.”


  5. Bill Brice

    I have a beautiful book on flute playing “The Flute and its Problems” by Marcel Moyse. Moyse comments that his teacher, Paul Taffenel, had always insisted on “pure” flute tone — meaning no vibrato, ever! However, Moyse tells us that he and all Taffenel’s other students observed that a subtle vibrato was pretty essential to Taffenel’s sound! As good students, nobody would ever question the Maestro on this. But, there it was!

    Absent good historical recordings, it is very difficult to get a grasp on exactly what past eras thought was “pure tone”. I consider it reasonable to assume that vibrato was used more as a sometimes additional color, less as a wall-to-wall “sound” than in current times. But, that’s only my best guess! One thing I’ve liked about James Galway is how he occasionally uses the non-vibrato as “sometimes color”. Context is everything!

    de gustibus, et cet!

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