What does authenticity sound like?
Whenever we schedule performances of the central symphonic repertoire on WFCR, we can safely choose among orchestras from all over the world. Whether based in Vienna, London, St. Petersburg or San Francisco, an orchestra had better be able to play Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, et al. with proper sound and style if it wants to be taken seriously.
But get even slightly off the central path, and the tendency is to go for the home team -- the orchestra/conductor combinations from the same country as the composer. Of course, masterpieces from Russia, Hungary, Finland and elsewhere on the "periphery" (speaking just in terms of classical music history, folks) have entered the repertoire of orchestras around the world, many of whom play them splendidly. And when it's a choice, performance quality, regardless of its address, wins out over ethnic identification. But put all the elements together -- skill, inspiration, understanding, belief -- and the results can't be beat.
How would I as a programmer know that? And what, exactly, am I listening for?
First, I listen for the rhythmic quality. Let me give you an example: Every conductor worth his/her baton knows that Béla Bartók's music is strongly influenced by the rhythms of the Hungarian language, which places the stress on the first syllable of every word. So, Bartók's musical phrases should be accented in the same way, and orchestras need to be taught to do it right. This is one reason why it takes even a composer as great as Bartók to get picked up internationally. And yes, Bartók performances have come a long way. But what if the orchestra doesn't have to be taught the rhythms -- it just knows them? What if it can phrase the music as instinctively as the musicians phrase their everyday conversation? Then and only then do you hear the rhythms played as naturally and unforced as the Iván Fischer (left)/Budapest Festival Orchestra performance of the Concerto for Orchestra, recommended below. Same goes for the Czech Philharmonic's Dvořák album. Only the Czechs give Dvořák the strong accents and slightly clipped phrasing that make their performances stand out as authentic.
How about the tonal quality of the instruments? This difference has actually diminished over the years, as orchestral sound has become more "globalized." Go back a generation or two, however, and you may be shocked by what you hear. Check out, for instance, the dark string tone, thick brass and positively weird woodwinds (is that a bassoon or a saxophone?) of the Yevgeny Mravinsky (left)/Leningrad Philharmonic Tchaikovsky set recommended below. When I first heard these great performances in the early '70s, they scared the hell out of me, until I got used to them. Now I consider them the standard for how a Russian orchestra should sound, and measure other performances by them. Then, give a listen to the Vaughan Williams below, for the sweet, plaintive oboes, the vibrato-tinged clarinets (they help me spot an English orchestra a mile away) and the choir-like blend of the strings. No one besides the Brits captures the pastoral quality of the music like this. So, the individuality of orchestras from different parts of the world may have lessened, but it hasn't gone away entirely. And that's a good thing.
Finally and most elusively, there's the quality that you could call commitment, or belief, or pride. It's what the late violinist-violist-teacher Philipp Naegele meant when he once told me "we all play Russian music as if it were great; the Russians play it like they know it's great." How does that translate to sound? In the best "authentic" performances, such as the Paavo Berglund (left)/Helsinki Philharmonic Sibelius Symphonies below, it can be heard in the unfussy, unfancy approach to the music. There's no showing off, with stretched phrases or exaggerated dynamic effects, how well you've mastered the work's style. The performances, taut and direct, call attention not to the interpretation, but to the work. They have nothing to prove, no one to impress, only the composer to serve.
Here are the recordings cited above. Click on the work for the link to Arkivmusic.com, a fine on-line classical retailer. All but the last are also available as high-quality downloads.
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5, Oboe Concerto, Flos Campi. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vernon Handley, conductor.