Orchestra by Richard Morrison

High notes and discords

London's oldest surviving orchestra celebrates its centenary this year. The London Symphony Orchestra is self-governing still, though less ungovernable than once. Barry Tuckwell, its celebrated ex-principal horn who doubled as chairman in the early Sixties, likens his institutionalised years to "sitting on a volcano". Alongside such headstrong young players as Neville Marriner and Gervase de Peyer, he helped reanimate the LSO when it looked like a spent force, giving it a unique profile based on gung-ho virtuosity. Appearances on the BBC's André Previn's Music Night lodged the acronym in the public mind.

Richard Morrison's entertaining new history of the LSO, subtitled "a century of triumph and turbulence", takes us on a whistle-stop tour, ticking off triumphs under Hans Richter, Edward Elgar, Pierre Monteux and the rest, while glancing at memorable turbulences. Sir Thomas Beecham and a philistine Arts Council appear as pantomime villains, with erstwhile chief Claudio Abbado, unhelpfully remote from his players' lives, emerging as a surprisingly equivocal figure.

The book appears as the LSO is riding high. Morrison highlights the prudent 20-year management stint of cellist Clive Gillinson in making the Barbican residency work. Releases from the LSO Live record label have been spectacularly well-received and the new St Luke's facility promises to advance the orchestra's pioneering education work. Women may have had a hard time establishing themselves, but today the proportion in the LSO stands at 20 per cent and rising. Morrison has no time for those who claim that fiscal stability and equal opportunities have been achieved at the expense of the edge-of-the-seat performance tradition, correctly observing that technical standards are higher than ever.

He writes in lively journalistic style, but signs of hasty preparation are not difficult to spot. His inclusion of Sir Adrian Boult's 1950s Vaughan Williams cycle as a highlight of the LSO recording history is a major blunder. The orchestra was the London Philharmonic, although Boult had recorded the Sixth with the LSO in 1949.

Morrison is equally unreliable when discussing the orchestra's prestigious visits to the Salzburg Festival in the 1970s, misrepresenting the chronology of its unlikely but warm relationship with the veteran maestro Karl Böhm to make a convenient point about Previn's waning authority. Morrison claims that Böhm turned in "magisterial accounts" of all the Brahms symphonies in the 1979 season, concerts that I seem to remember were taken over by Sergiu Celibidache.

Perhaps there was simply too much material to shoehorn into a book of this size. Even so, it is good to see the players' point of view. Morrison's brisk skim should send fans back to their collections, even if he leaves hardcore subscribers and a few performers disgruntled: LSO stalwart Richard Hickox doesn't make it into the index!

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