High expectations are a dangerous thing: reality has a cruel way of bringing keenly anticipated events to their knees every so often. This unfortunate fact was verified once again this Friday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, where the youthful Spira Mirabilis appeared to perform Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Consisting of players from Europe’s top orchestras, Spira has been wowing audiences everywhere from shopping centres to ship’s cabins with their fresh approach to the classical repertoire.
For an event which promised such excitement and innovation, it seemed an odd decision to begin with a forty-minute ‘conversation’ between the Southbank Centre’s former head of music Marshall Marcus, conductor Sir Roger Norrington and the players of the orchestra: the staged discussion felt rather forced and was an anti-climactic way to begin. The conversation had the distinct flavour of a viva voce exam, where the players were forced to defend and explain their approach; an explanation which would hardly have been necessary had we been allowed to hear the orchestra’s approach for ourselves beforehand. The orchestra believes in presenting only one work in each concert: the pre-performance discussion had been designed to complement what would otherwise have been a very short programme; however, giving the audience the choice as to whether or not they wanted to attend might have prevented the response “Get playing!” from materialising when audience members were asked if they had any questions.
A disillusioning start, but the evening promised to improve as the performers returned to the stage with their instruments. It was clear from the confidence and panache with which Spira Mirabilis began Beethoven’s famous opening bars that every single musician on stage believed completely in the validity and necessity of their reworking of the repertoire. This unity of purpose is the strongest defining feature of the group and creates an atmosphere in which each player is engaged with the work as both a soloist and a member of a close-knit team.
Spira Mirabilis is a chamber orchestra as opposed to a symphony orchestra: this reduction in the number of players signals a return to the size of orchestra that Beethoven would have expected when writing the symphony. The smaller number of players resulted in far greater clarity, from the clean, well-balanced sound of the orchestra to the transparency with which a musical line was passed from section to section. The move towards playing with an authentically proportioned orchestra began with Sir Roger and others decades ago, and even the biggest symphony orchestras now very often appear with reduced numbers to perform a work by Mozart or Beethoven: the talk beforehand only served to remind us that this approach was hardly new.
A more innovative feature, though by no means without precedent, is that the orchestra operates with no conductor. At its best, this style has the advantage of motivating each player to take control of his or her artistic decisions and forcing the ensemble to really listen to each other. This was evident throughout the symphony; however, there are also disadvantages to driver-less style: these included the odd moment of ragged ensemble playing, a tendency to drag through slower passages as no one person was responsible for maintaining the tempo, and a certain lack of cohesion when a phrase was passed into the hands of another player.
Spira Mirabilis refer to their week of preparation as a study period, an allusion to their attitude towards rehearsal. Instead of the strict hierarchy which exists within most conventional orchestras, each player is free to put across his view at all times in order to come up with a fresh interpretation in which every musician believes. This system is both the orchestra’s great strength and its greatest weakness: the utter conviction with which they perform owes much to everybody having had a chance to add artistic ideas. But the ragged edges apparent throughout the performance suggest that a little too much time is spent in discussion, and not enough on the fundamentals of rehearsal.
Southbank Centre: Queen Elizabeth HallBelvedere Road
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 8XX
Spira mirabilis © Karen Robinson