Philip Hensher: Where's the orchestral variety?

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The Independent Online

One of the most interesting features of the Proms season is the glimpse it gives of a concentrated range of orchestral traditions. Though the backbone of the season is always supplied by the BBC and other British orchestras, a decent array of visiting ones varies the texture.

It's often overlooked how very different the national and local styles of orchestras can be. Often, an orchestra has a particular speciality, as well as a particular sound which may be pinned down to their origins. The Concertgebouw, for instance, is bringing Mahler's sixth later this season. They've a very long history of expertise in Mahler, and a transparent, muscular style which is very attractive to British ears, and suitable to Mahler's lucid contrapuntal manner.

Elsewhere, there is a rash of Scandinavian visitors: the Gothenburg, the excellent Danish National Radio Symphony and the Helsinki Philharmonic. What you often get with those northern orchestras is a weighty, pure bass sound which makes great sense of Sibelius's favourite combination of double basses alone with the brass.

Even enormously celebrated international orchestras can preserve local traditions. The Vienna Philharmonic still has an immediately recognisably middle-European sound; the sounds vividly distinct rather than excessively blended, and a touch of reediness in the wind. The Czech Philharmonic, my favourite orchestral sound, has an even more vivid range of contrasted sounds, which are stunning in Janacek. Some middle-European orchestras, and certainly Russian ones - the Kirov is one - have a massive weight of brass tone, often amazingly full of vibrato; a Russian account of the Tchaikovsky Pathétique can lift the roof.

These local sounds are, I think, on the way out. Local orchestras still have particular specialities; the Cleveland, also visiting, has bent its extraordinary American virtuosity towards an un-American commitment to contemporary music. A great German orchestra, such as the Leipzig Gewandhaus, still maintains its roots in the German repertory. But there is pressure to change and become more international, with less local flavour in the sound. Partly, audiences want to hear the whole repertoire from any orchestra (with some slightly surprising results - it will be very intriguing to hear the Vienna Philharmonic's Rite of Spring, a piece very far removed from their traditional repertoire).

Partly since Karajan revolutionised the notion of orchestral sound with his Berlin recordings, audiences have a clear idea of what a great international orchestra ought to sound like. A kind of "international" sound has taken hold. I would find it difficult to say with any confidence whether I was listening to the LSO, the Los Angeles Philharmonic or the Berlin Philharmonic.

With the rise of the international sound comes the phenomenon of the international orchestra. It's very striking to see the orchestras performing at the Proms. Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra takes players from all over the Middle East to perform music largely from a foreign, Western tradition. There is the European Union Youth Orchestra and its offshoot, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Georg Solti's World Orchestra for Peace is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and orchestras from the Juilliard school of music and the Royal Academy are combining for a one-off.

All of these are politically admirable enterprises, and often musically admirable as well - the EUYO and the COE can knock your socks off. In some cases, though, they exemplify the faint doubts that one has about an international sound in an orchestra. Debussy complained that in Wagner's orchestra, everything was so blended that one could no longer tell an oboe from a trombone. That must have been an exaggeration 100 years ago, but it isn't now.

Looking at, say, the World Orchestra for Peace's programme at the Proms this year, one's musical doubts do start to surface. It's an awful programme, hurtling from Rossini to Debussy to a commission from Esa-Pekka Salonen to a Wagner prelude, and finally, to that deathless chunk of hilarious kitsch, Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade.

The process seems unstoppable; in 30 years, the Bolshoi orchestra will sound much like that at La Scala, distinct only in their repertoire, if that. It's a shame, because music is a matter of local traditions; a fascination of the orchestral scene has always been the knowledge that the bassoon solo at the start of The Rite of Spring, say, is not going to sound the same in Amsterdam as in Vienna.

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