Comparative Listening 101- Schumann Spring Symphony

Where possible, once I’ve learned and digested a score and forgotten everything I’ve ever heard other conductors and orchestras do in concert and on recordings, I like to do some serious comparative listening. It’s always interesting and often incredibly helpful see what conclusions other performers have come to about the piece at hand.

Video is often even more instructive. One can see what the conductor was actually doing: this is usually very helpful and interesting, and occasionally rather terrifying. Video also gives one a chance to see what bowings the orchestra is using, and how the players communicate with each other. It’s not at all unusual to listen to an entire performance I find wrong-headed, disappointing or sloppy, only to stumble on one idea, one bowing or one moment that makes the whole process worthwhile.

As I look ahead to recording the last installment in my Schumann cycle with the Orchestra of the Swan on December 2nd and 3rd, I came across two videos which I thought made for an interesting comparison, so I’ve decided to share them here. One is a performance (alongside a bit of rehearsal footage) of the group Spria Mirabilis, who play (very well) without a conductor.The other is by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin.

The reason the comparison is interesting is because the two groups are of similar size and share a number of the same players (most importantly Lorenza Borrani, who leads both groups) and the two performances were recorded only a couple years appart.

I’d welcome your reactions and comments- especially if we can get beyond “I liked the ________ one better.”

For me, the two performances raise some very interesting questions about what a conductor does or does not bring to a performance, how players listen  and watch with and without a conductor, how an orchestra’s sense of line and meter changes with or without a conductor, and so on.

I normally avoid any discussion of living colleagues here, but in this case, it’s clear that these are both very good performances at a high professional level- what really struck me is that not only are the two performances quite different, the relative strengths and not-strengths  are so different.

I think if you take in both performances attentively, you’ll find that it’s not possible to say “it’s better with/without a conductor” but you’ll certainly realize it’s different. For the conductor, it’s a chance to see what the players do when you’re not there than you can encourage the to bring to your rehearsals and concerts, and for the musicians, it’s a chance to see and hear what a conductor can bring to a performance and to think about how you can keep those qualities when you work without one.

Spira Mirabilis (performance starts about 10 mins in)



Chamber Orchestra of Europe

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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.

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1 comment on “Comparative Listening 101- Schumann Spring Symphony”

  1. John Broggio

    I’m not sure which I prefer overall but the first impressions I get are that the lack of a conductor means that any rubato, phrasing and/or tempo changes have to be more “organic” than when a solitary focal point can direct less “natural” inflections to the ensemble ahead of when the players have to execute the phrase(s) in question. Listening to snippets more closely, the immense passion & intense focus that the Spira players bring is slightly offset by the necessity of minuscule “waits” for cues from colleagues (especially those from woodwind where the string players can’t see behind them) that seems to disrupt their conception – the launch of the first movement coda following the flute solo is a good example to compare IMO.

    I think, on reflection, I’d prefer to see Spira in concert but would find “living” with the COE accounts at home very slightly easier for repeated listening. That is not to suggest that given a studio that Spira couldn’t turn out a wonderful account with the small ?unintentional? hiatus’ smoothed out.

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