acoustics, Affekt, Andrea Marcon, balance, Berlin, bowing, cantabile style, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, emotions, Haydn, Konzerthaus, Leopold Mozart, Mahler, Mozart, performance practice, phrasing, Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin, string tone, vibrato
In 1756, Leopold Mozart observed that “there are performers who tremble consistently on each note as if they had the permanent fever” and suggested that vibrato should be used only on sustained notes and perhaps as an ornament at the ends of phrases. He recommended that ”the performer pay attention to the Affekt [i.e., emotion] intended by the composer, so that the most appropriate bowing could be chosen” and that musicians pursue an education broad enough to encompass the study of literature and especially poetry, “for a cantabile style should be the aim of every instrumentalist, and poetry is the key to good musical phrasing.”
The intention to satisfy Leopold Mozart’s ideals was evident during a 9 December 2011 concert with the Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin when Andrea Marcon led the ensemble in four symphonic works of the eighteenth century, including a cello concerto and symphony by C. P. E. Bach as well as Haydn and W. A. Mozart symphonies. Marcon’s radical reduction in the size of the string sections and emulation of historical string tone, bowing and phrasing, however, were not in themselves sufficient to guarantee this modern-instrument orchestra’s success. He also had to pay great attention to the acoustical characteristics of the performance environment as defined by the architecture of the hall, the instrumentation and physical arrangement of his orchestra, and the size of the audience.
The concert took place in the Konzerthaus on the Gendamenmarkt in Berlin, a new 1,600-seat concert hall inserted into the shell of the Schauspielhaus of 1821 that was severely damaged during the Second World War. Opened in 1984, the classical vocabularly of the original theatre’s architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, was interpreted by the designers in such a way that the resulting room acoustical characteristics of “envelopment” and “warmth,” as opposed to “clarity,” were maximized. The initial result was a performance environment that so clearly favored the symphonic repertoire of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the acousticians were subsequently directed to adjust the hall’s response to a broader spectrum of compositional forms and eras.
The concert opened with Haydn’s Symphony no. 44 in E minor (Hob I:44) of 1771, scored for strings with a bassoon and pairs of oboes and horns. It quickly became apparent that the sound in a seat in the first gallery on the house left side of the orchestra was dominated by direct, rather than reflected, sound from the horns. Furthermore, the overhanging second gallery above was preventing any sound from the upper volume of the room from reaching that listening position. As a result, it was impossible to accurately judge the overall string tone and the relative balance among the sections of the orchestra.
The following Concerto for Violoncello in A Major (Wq 172), composed in 1753 by Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, dispensed with the winds and called Marcon to the centrally-located harpsichord where he could lead the continuo group in either a standing or sitting position. Xavier Phillips, the cello soloist, was therefore free to indicate the pace for each of the three movements and lead the push and pull of each sequence of musical Affekts. As for the string tone, however, the hall’s reputation for being bass-rich could still not be perceived in the first side gallery, even in the complete absence of horns, so that it became apparent that a better listening position needed to be found.
Looking around at the audience, it became obvious that the concert was far from being sold out, and many seats were available in the rows where the same orchestra, under the direction of Marek Janowski, had been heard performing Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 just two weeks earlier. During that fully-occupied performance onstage and off, and therefore in the presence of an absolute maximum extent of sound-absorbing surfaces, the blend among the various orchestral sections was excellent, as was the balance with the alto soloist and two elevated choirs, but the sound of the orchestral soloists seemed distant and obscured by the rest of the ensemble. Yet, in spite of the huge forces on an extended stage, the sound was never ear-splittingly loud, and the audience was repeatedly immersed in the amassed sound of the full orchestra.
Because the overall listening experience in a main floor seat during the Romantic concert had been so superior to what was being experienced in the side gallery, I vowed to return to the main floor for the second half of this Classical concert. Luckily, I was able to occupy the same seat as for the Mahler during the intermission, and, as expected, the sonic impression of the second half of the concert, unencumbered by any gallery overhang, was completely different from the first.
C. P. E. Bach’s Symphony in D Major (Wq 183/1), composed in 1776, had, with the addition of two flutes, the same instrumentation as the Haydn symphony that opened the concert, but now, with a varied diet of sound energy traveling to my ears from the ceiling, sides and rear of the concert hall, the balance among sections was greatly improved, the string tone was full and warm, and the wind solos began to shine. Marcon and his orchestra conveyed an almost joyful sense of play as they passed themes from section to section. Interesting timbres resulting from surprising pairings and quick dynamic changes could now be appreciated as well.
Near perfection was ultimately achieved during Mozart’s Symphony in D Major (KV 385) of 1783. With the addition of a few more stands of strings and pairs of bassoons, trumpets and timpani, but in the presence of less absorption, due to the less than capacity audience, father Leopold’s cantabile style was achieved by all, and the hall’s reputation for envelopment was readily fulfilled whenever a moderate loudness threshold was achieved. The tutti tone was full, the basses were warm, and the wind solos projected with ease. Andrea Marcon had struck a balance among the orchestra’s and audience’s familiarity with the work being presented, the room acoustic’s ability to respond to both the performers’ and audience’s needs, and his personal insistence on performance styles that were true to the emotions of each composer.