25th anniversary logo stack


The ORR at 25

11 24
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
A Manifesto for a new (old) orchestra - 1990

Silver Speech MarksLet us not beat about the bush: the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique is an offshoot of the English Baroque Soloists, catapulted into the 19th century. Yet there are significant differences of aim, style and composition between the two entities despite the continuity of ideals and even of core players. But surely the epithets “révolutionnaire” and “romantique” are not confined to a single era and could legitimately apply to some of our ventures in the earlier repertoire? After all, aren’t Monteverdi, Rameau and C.P.E. Bach all “revolutionary” at times? Isn’t Mozart giving us “romantic” music in Idomeneo and isn’t Haydn’s use of the orchestra in the preludes to his last two oratorios both revolutionary and proto-romantic? As Fétis wrote in 1831 “musical history witnessed a thousand revolutions, which were no less striking than the one going on before our eyes”

What is interesting here is that far from distancing us from the music, experience shows that period instruments can underline and enhance these very modernistic qualities (and if anyone doubts that, let me refer them to the EBS’s recording of Mozart’s D minor piano concerto KV 466 we made with Malcolm Bilson in 1983. But perhaps it is not until Beethoven that “révolutionnaire” and “romantique” become complementary terms, signaling the rout of ossified classicism and the consequent release of powerful sentiments. In that sense the debut of the ORR should be backdated to 5 November 1989 when in London’s Royal Festival Hall we performed Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, that most revolutionary and romantic of Mass settings.
So, why the fancy title? First, because in French the two adjectives have rather precise and fitting connotations, whereas in English (and in German too, for that matter) they tend to be associated misleadingly with insurrection and sentimentality – a vulgar dilution of Romantic ideals, or, in German, “herabgesunkenes Kulturgut”. Second, it serves to emphasise the strong European orientation of the new orchestra, starting with the simple fact that its repertoire is centered on composers from both sides of the Rhine, men who literally transfigured the shape of western music in the 19th century; but also to reflect the outlook and the provenance of many of its players, artistic collaborators and patrons.

If the English can lay some title to the broad literary stimulus to the Romantic movement, if the Germans furnished its most distinguished composers, it was the French who provided the crucible where these ideas were first8 forged and articulated, while their opera composers had a colossal impact on the development of German symphonic and instrumental style. conductinghighresIt was also the French who had the initiative to organise an entire orchestra centred on Romanticism with Beethoven, who they took to be the very embodiment of musique révolutionnaire et romantique, as its spearhead. This was the work of Francois-Antoine Habeneck (possibly the first conductor to stand and face his orchestra) and the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, that outstanding orchestra founded in 1828, which confirmed Paris as the centre of musical Europe in the 1830s. If the ORR requires a model, I would like it to be this. In its heyday (1828-1845) Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Chopin and Liszt were engaged to play concertos with the SCC, Berlioz was hired as an extra percussionist (they did nothing for his own music however, but we will try to make amends!) and Wagner sat and admired it (but failed to get his music played – and, arguably, missed the whole point of its stylistic radicalism).

The SCC Orchestra achieved several things. They virtually appropriated Beethoven for themselves (even performing his string quartets orchestrally), and their performances of his symphonies were prepared meticulously, unlike any that Beethoven witnessed during his lifetime. For the first time uniform bowings were adopted and the scores seem to have been performed with unaccustomed accuracy and precision. The orchestra took Destiny by the scruff of the neck in typically French fashion and showed the musical world where the future lay. Still more so than, say, the Leipzig Gewandhaus under Mendelssohn, the SCC provided a laboratory and an arena where the musicians – who were all Conservatoire laureates – could express their ideas, practice, teach, write their instrumental tutors, consult the leading luthiers, sniffing out the latest brass instrumentschez Adolphe Sax, or have their violins modernised by Vuillaume, confer with Berlioz (author of the famous Grand Traité d’instrumentationet d’orchestration modernes ) and then display their skills in public concerts attended by wildly enthusiastic audiences – even on Sunday afternoons!

What excites me about this era and this approach is the very frisson produced when the traditional rubs shoulders with the up-to-the-minute, as it so often does in Berlioz’ music. By juxtaposing cors de chassewith cors à cylindres, or trumpets (which had not evolved significantly since Monteverdi’s days) with the latest cornets à pistons, Berlioz invites us to explore the whole range of new orchestral colours, of which he was, spectacularly, the master. The very fact that the 19th century (particularly its first half) prized colour above all else in music, makes it the era in which period instruments are most valuable for bringing out the subtle and pervasive differences in the overall palette of sounds, which composers such as Weber, Berlioz or Schumann were committed to reveal. Here, again, it is the French who led the way: Méhul, Gossec, Cherubini (an adopted Frenchman), even LeSueur, Berlioz’ teacher, relished the isolated timbres and individual propensities of individual instruments. To revive not just these instruments, but music in which they feature so prominently, is the starting point of the ORR: to provide exciting new perspectives on a repertoire which can easily sound bland or hackneyed today. Stendhal wrote “It needs courage to be a romantic because it involves taking risks.”.

But wait: is this not special pleading, a case of the emperor’s new clothes? I am not implying that two or three generations of great interpreters have somehow “got it wrong” up to now. That would be not merely impertinent, but to deny the valid creative tension which undoubtedly exists between the conception of a musical work and its realisation: in other words the way a composition can survive history and not merely tolerate, but be enriched by changes of instruments and styles of performance. No, the problem arises from the very fact that much of this music has never been totally absent from the standard performing repertoire and as a result the stylistic waters have become muddied. Musicians have been lulled into postulating an unbroken and largely fictitious tradition of performing style, whereas in fact what we are so often given is the brutal uprooting of music from its own period setting, and its transplantation in unnatural soil made up of an all-purpose, composite, undifferentiated “style” which does not bear scrutiny.

32The real rot set in the late 19th century when orchestras expanded to fill larger halls, while conductors continued to perform the early German Romantics in an uncompromisingly contemporary way, doctoring the scores to fit their tastes and their instruments. Even now I find it hard to believe that Felix Weingartner could refer to Schumann’s orchestration as "grey on grey", advocating “a ruthless procedure …[of] deleting all superfluous parts” so as to overcome “the pasty effect of the original.”. It would not have occurred to him that his orchestra, being more than twice the size of the Gewandhaus of the 1840s and with significantly altered instruments, was perhaps an inappropriate vehicle for playing Schumann’s symphonies, since he, like everyone else at the time, subscribed to the ‘bigger-is-better’ ethos of late 19th century industrial and technical expansionism.

The trouble arises today where the stylistic accretions become so fixed in an orchestra’s collective mind-set that they cannot be removed without a violent shock to their systems (Leonard Bernstein managed it brilliantly when he recorded the Schumann symphonies, although his claim that he was ‘restoring the original’ is open to question). This is where I see dazzlingly new possibilities opening up for an orchestra such as the ORR: in its potential to give us new insights and a fresh approach to familiar, much loved music, to explore new contexts and to unearth fascinating neglected or undervalued works. I realise that I am laying myself on the line- as indeed are the players- by postulating a new (old) sound for this music. Make no mistake: our raison d’être is not antiquarianism – not just a nostalgic fascination for outmoded models like vintage cars or carriage clocks. It is a passionate belief that these instruments and the approach they suggest can help us to make this intoxicating music come alive again, helping us to transform the scores and the sounds we hear.

Not that the same music cannot be played convincingly and beautifully on modern instruments. It can, of course, and personally I have a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction guest-conducting excellent “regular” symphonic orchestras. The challenge there is to clarify sonorities which are probably better adjusted to Mahler or Strauss than to Schumann, Mendelssohn or Berlioz: to lift the habit of semi-permanent sostenuto and continuous vibrato, to introduce inflection, articulation, shaping, air, a breathing style. It canbe done, but it doesn’t come quickly or naturally and one is sometimes left with the impression of a halfway stage. It will need, I feel, the courageous example of players like those in the ORR, who are prepared to put their necks on the block to show what techniques and sounds are most appropriate to this music if its true essence is to be recaptured, and then, by osmosis, for the process gradually to filter through to the standard modern symphony orchestras. Berlioz considered his music to be “defaced” when incompetent conductors or performers mishandled the “expressively calculated” colours of his scores. Clarification, equilibrium and proportion, the “specific weight” of individual instruments and the type of phrasing they dictate – these provide the permissive basis, now as then, for releasing feeling and sentiment. As Schumann said in his essay on Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, “Form is the vessel of the Spirit”.

I am aware that the claims I have made here will raise some hackles and be viewed with varying degrees of scepticism, for they strike at the very heart of performers’ and listeners’ sense of security. Why should we have to chuck out our treasured recordings of Walter, Furtwängler and Klemperer? We don’t. Great interpretations exist sometimes despitethe sound-source of the instruments used (justSilver End speech Marks think of Landowska or, at another extreme, Glenn Gould in Bach). Conversely, the mere assumption of ‘antique’ instruments and an  historical frame of mind does not guarantee quality of interpretation of any shape or form: it has to evolve, to be worked at and to be earned. That is our aim. 

John Eliot Gardiner, 1990