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A better book might have resulted
on 6 September 2017
Following his youthful attempts to become a maestro by pretending to be Karajan or Toscanini in front of a darkened window, the music critic and journalist Tom Service has done the next best thing by interviewing six conductors as they rehearse and perform, and talking with members of their orchestras.
The six are Valery Gergiev [b. 1953, London Symphony Orchestra/World Orchestra for Peace], Mariss Jansons [b. 1943, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra], Jonathan Nott [b. 1952, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra], Simon Rattle [b. 1955, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra], Iván Fischer [b. 1951, Budapest Festival Orchestra] and the late Claudio Abbado [1933-2014, Lucerne Festival Orchestra].
The ‘astonishing music-making’ that Service heard and discussed took place between 2008-10 and this might explain the absence of any women conductors. Even then the selected six are mostly rather similar in age and all are European. The inclusion of Nott is perhaps the surprise although there are many examples where the performances of a less-famous orchestra and a good conductor can prove inspirational, especially if their relationship has been built up over years.
Service seems rather in awe of his subjects, regularly finding them bringing something inspirational to their performances that he had not previously come across. The musical works described are all orchestral which on the one hand allows some degree of comparison but ignores the role of conductor in concerto performance where a mutual approach with the soloist is often, but not always, sought.
Some of Service’s prose is purple, as when Gergiev produces ‘explosive propulsions of his elbows, with violent convulsions of his shoulders, and even with bestial, laryngeal grunts’, which makes him sound more like a TV wrestler. Perhaps surprisingly it is Abbado, approaching his 80th year, who is found to be most relaxed as he works on Debussy’s Nocturnes with a group of musicians drawn from all over the world. Their communication and rapport is very different to that of, say, Rattle and his German musicians as they prepare and perform symphonies by Sibelius, not a composer that is highly regarded in Germany. Rattle’s association with that orchestra began in 2002, two years after Nott and his Bamberg players. Service offers a brief history of conducting that includes Arturo Toscanini and Wilhelm Furtwängler, the even more autocratic Fritz Reiner and George Szell, and reaches its culmination in the super-ego of Herbert von Karajan.
Service’s unconstrained enthusiasm for classical music is to be welcomed but perhaps a more considered and cooler style would have served his arguments better. Whilst the conductors differ in their relationships with their players, they are all driven individuals – driven by their art but also by the demands of global programming and recording schedules. Jansons is well known to have suffered a heart attack whilst conducting an opera but carried on to complete the performance. In addition to their regular orchestras they are all involved as guest conductors where the nature of their communication with unfamiliar players must differ, something also beyond the scope of this book.
Whilst some of the conductors’ interviews fascinate, it is perhaps the perspectives of the orchestra members that offer the greatest insights. These vary from chapter to chapter being most detailed for the Berlin Philharmonic and Lucerne Festival Orchestras. Better editing might have produced a more coherent story rather than what we have here: an introduction, six disparate chapters and an epilogue.
On balance this is a fascinating book that might have been better. It loses a star for the author’s tendency to over-write – as in ‘The difference between Gergiev and a conductor who is a perfect time-beater, for whom the music is about making the right noises in the right places, is the difference between a Newtonian physicist and a professor of string theory.’