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Woodwind and Brass Soloists and my Colleagues in the Orchestra

So many fine soloists have come out of the orchestra – Galway, Goossens, Brymer, Camden, Brooke, Brain, Bean, Parikian, Pini, and many more.

As well as the soloists I have written about there was always the pleasure of playing in the orchestra with colleagues one respected and admired, especially the woodwind and brass players. The woodwind and brass soloists when I was young and for a large part of the time I was in the profession were all members of one of the London orchestras or free-lance musicians in London so that at one time or another I played alongside all the artists I shall refer to. It is only in the last 25 or 30 years that it has been possible in Britain for a woodwind or brass player to consider a career entirely as a soloist.

Two very fine flautists Geoffrey Gilbert and Gareth Morris both had successful solo careers at the same time as being members of one or other of the London symphony orchestras. James Galway was the first flautist to leave orchestral playing altogether and make a highly successful career as a soloist, but only after he had been principal flute in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and then, later, of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for some years. The great oboist Leon Goossens, who maintained his international solo reputation from the 1930s for the following 30 years, still continued to play in orchestras throughout his life. The same was true for the clarinettists Frederick Thurston and Reginald Kell, and later Jack Brymer and Gervase de Peyer. From when I began to be really interested in playing the clarinet in 1939 and for many years afterwards the only opportunity to hear the Mozart Clarinet Concerto was when Frederick Thurston played it each year at the Proms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, of which he was principal clarinet.

It was not until Kell went to live in the USA in 1949 that he was able to give up orchestral playing. Previously he had at one time or another been principal clarinet in the LSO, the LPO, the RPO and Philharmonia. He had been my hero in my teens and the first time I sat alongside him remains one of the most thrilling moments of my life. He had not been able to attend the rehearsal in the morning so I had had to move up to play first clarinet – that was still in the days when a star player could get away with something like that. When he came onto the platform at the concert in the evening he introduced himself, ‘My name is Reg Kell’ – as if I would not know who he was! He was a big man with large hands and when he took the clarinet out of its case to assemble it, it was as if it were a piccolo. Just the way he did that was a thrill..

Many years later Gervase de Peyer, who had been principal in the LSO, followed Kell to the USA where he has had a very successful solo career for many years. He is one year younger than I am and we often played together in several orchestras. From the start it was clear he was more suited to being a soloist than an orchestral player, even though he was a fine player in the orchestra. He had a natural tendency to play as a soloist, whatever position he was in, as I found when he played second to me. I have written about Jack Brymer several times already but must refer to him again here because he was one of the great wind players of the second half of the 20th century, as Beecham said once at a rehearsal after Jack had played particularly beautifully. For me all his finest qualities, his soft, clean articulation and silken, seamless legato combined with a wonderful lyricism are to be heard in the stunning recording of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto he made with the RPO and Beecham. This is a rare example of conductor, soloist and orchestra coming together as if they were one. A recording to treasure.

Archie Camden and Gwydion Brooke were both outstanding bassoonists each with a very personal way of playing and totally different from each other. Camden, who was in the Hallé Orchestra before he came to the BBC Symphony Orchestra when it was formed in 1930, was the first British bassoonist to change from the French bassoon to the German or Heckel Bassoon. Adam Heckel assisted in redesigning the bassoon keywork in 1820 and soon started manufacturing instruments. Traditionally the German bassoon has a much more ‘woody’ tone and is rather less flexible than the French and it was in this way that Camden played. He was for many years the most outstanding player in Britain. Not long after Camden started playing the German instrument Gwydion Brooke who was still at the Royal Academy of Music heard about this new instrument and went to see Camden in Manchester and at once got himself a similar instrument. It was not long before he had persuaded his fellow bassoon students and their professor to change, too. Brooke joined the RPO at the same time that I did and he was also in the Philharmonia whilst I was so I had many opportunities to witness his incredible virtuosity. He had a very idiosyncratic style and was the first to play the German bassoon with vibrato making his playing much more flexible. His performances of the Weber Concerto were dazzling.

Even the great Dennis Brain, for me the finest wind player of all, played the horn in orchestras until the end of his all too short life. It was after a concert with the Philharmonia at the Edinburgh Festival in 1957 after a performance of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony. He was driving back to London in the early hours of the morning when he must have dozed off for a moment, crashed his car and been killed instantly. He had been sitting just behind me on the platform of the Usher Hall and I remember thinking at the time how extraordinary it was that when, near the beginning of the symphony, the horn has just a single held note, by some magic Brain made it sound like a melody. This event remains vividly in my memory, not only because apart from Ginette Neveu I have never felt the loss of any another musician quite so powerfully, but because through chance my own life was spared on that occasion.

I had to get back to London that night as I had an unusually attractive TV engagement the following morning, one of a series of Sunday afternoon half-hour programmes, playing on screen in a quintet: two violins cello, piano and clarinet. We played special arrangements of light music and accompanied a very popular singer in the 1950s, Elizabeth Welch. I had considered returning with Dennis by car, but as he was not feeling too well he decided to stay for a while with his friend the flautist Gareth Morris before setting off. Not wishing to risk being late I decided to take the night train instead. As it happened the train was very late and when I eventually arrived at the BBC White City TV studios I was told there was a telephone message from my wife. She had been told by a neighbour of a news item on the radio reporting the death of Dennis Brain in a car accident and was concerned that I might have been involved.

Sixteen years later, when the Philharmonia was on the way to give a concert in Warsaw, one of several we were to give with Norman Del Mar conducting, on a tour of Poland and Romania, I was sitting chatting with him on one of the interminable coach journeys we had to undertake. We were remembering various artists we had both worked with and he mentioned Dennis Brain, with whom he had been second horn in the RAF Central Band and then in the Philharmonia. I told him about an extraordinary dream I had had about Dennis, and that it had been so vivid that when I awoke it took me a while to realise it had been a dream. I was astonished when Norman told me he had had a similar dream at about the same time. It seems that Dennis’s sprit had lived on. I wonder if there were other musicians who may have had a similar experience?

Inspired by Dennis Brain there has been a succession of superb British horn soloists, Alan Civil and Barry Tuckwell, and now David Pyatt. There have also been some very fine trumpet players in a particularly English tradition. The first I remember hearing was Ernest Hall whose noble tone dominated the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s brass section. Richard (Bob) Walton, his pupil, followed in the same style and was Beecham’s principal trumpet in the LPO and RPO. Two more players in the same tradition were David Mason and Philip Jones who went on to form the celebrated and much recorded Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. Another very fine player in quite a different style was George Eskdale, for many years principal in the LSO and a distinguished soloist. In contrast to the Ernest Hall school of playing this was more akin to the brass band cornet sound and style, very lyrical and suited for playing melodies.

In general the difference in sheer technical ability of the woodwind and brass instrument soloists and their colleagues in the orchestras is not very great. There are a good many wind players in the orchestras with enough technical skill to perform the solo repertoire. It is usually a matter of temperament, personality and musical imagination that holds them back.

In the previous chapter I suggested that many orchestral string players at some time, probably when they were quite young, will have dreamt that perhaps they might one day have the opportunity to become a soloist or a member of a string quartet. Whereas for woodwind and brass players the possibility of a solo career was extremely unlikely, there have always been opportunities for violinists, cellists and pianists to become soloists As a rule it has usually been clear from a fairly early age, often by the age of four or five, whether there is the outstanding talent required for a successful solo career.

Of those that show obvious natural ability only a very few will go on to have an international solo career There will be some others who start off quite well, perhaps winning some competitions but just not having what it takes to break into the ‘big time’. A number of very fine string players decide that the satisfaction of a life playing chamber music will be far more rewarding than the solitary glory of being a soloist. Nearly all the other string instrumentalists wanting to follow a career as a professional musician will play in an orchestra of some kind, most as what used always to be called ‘rank and file’ players, though now, in these days of political correctness, they are referred to as ‘tutti’ players. From amongst them will arise those with outstanding technical and musical qualities who in addition have the qualities of leadership needed to lead a section. Not all very good players have this quality so that in a very good orchestra there may be quite a few exceedingly good players within the string sections.

In chapter 4 I wrote about the small orchestras there were in the cafes, restaurants and at seaside resorts at the beginning of the last century. Until the 1940s these little orchestras provided the opportunity for violinists with sufficient technique and musical qualities to lead a small group and express themselves musically in an individual way. Now there are far more orchestras requiring good violinists, but there they have to be part of a section, playing the same notes as everyone else in the section, whether they are the leader or sitting at the back. The many opportunities for personal self-expression available in the past have gone. Now they only really exist for the soloist or chamber musician.

As well as the pleasure when sitting in an orchestra of listening to my woodwind and brass colleagues, there was also the enjoyment of hearing the violin and cello solos, the much less frequent viola solos and the extremely rare solos for the double bass. The Leader (Concert Master) of an orchestra has some wonderful solos in the orchestral, opera and ballet repertoires, such as those in Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov, the Missa Solemnis by Beethoven, Tchaikosky’s Suite in G, in the opera from Thais by Massenet and the well-known violin solos in the ballet music for Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty by Tchaikovsky.

The solo violin part in Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss is particularly demanding and calls for considerable virtuosity. Michel Schwalbé, for more than 30 years Karajan’s leader of the Berlin Philharmonic, was famous for his performances and recording of the solo part in this work. He had a fantastic technique, comparable with any of the great international soloists and used to dazzle the National Centre for Orchestral Studies Orchestra each year when he came to coach them for me. Though Oscar Lampe who was leader of the RPO for some time had no pretension to be a soloist and had neither the technique nor the brilliance of Schwalbé I particularly remember him playing the big solos in Heldenleben with great sensitivity when we recorded it with Beecham.

Over the years I have listened to many fine leaders – outstanding players such as Rodney Friend, who was leader of the LPO and then the New York Philharmonic before returning to lead the BBC Symphony Orchestra , Hugh Bean, Carl Pini, Erich Gruenberg and Manoug Parikian, all leaders of the Philharmonia at one time. Manoug Parikian was (for me) the ideal leader. As well as being a very fine violinist, he had a bearing and authority that commanded respect from everyone, the members of his section, the whole orchestra and conductors. All of them had solo careers though they were never really able to established themselves as full-time soloists. Not even Schawlbé with his virtuosity managed to do that. Is it, perhaps, a question of personality? Or because they had the qualities a good leader requires: a concern for their section and, at times, for the whole orchestra , rather than the over-riding ambition needed by a soloist?

The principal of the cello section also has many big solos to play. Some of the best known in the concert repertoire are those that come from operas and ballets such as the cello solos in the suites from Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, the Overture to William Tell by Rossini, the Overtures Morning Noon and Night in Vienna and Poet and Peasant by Suppé. The solos in the slow movements of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 and Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto. In Jeux d’enfants by Bizet, in the movement Little Husband, Little Wife, there is a lovely duet for violin and cello (sometimes now played by the whole of the violin and cello sections). One of my earliest music memories is hearing this played by Marie Wilson and Raymond Clark, when they were both in the BBC Symphony Orchestra at a broadcast from the BBC Maida Vale studios, where I had been taken by my father. Many years later I played in the RPO and the Philharmonia with Raymond when he was their principal cello. He was a beautiful player and had the musicianship and skill to have been a distinguished soloist, but always remained in the orchestra, perhaps lacking the necessary ambition.

Anthony Pini, who was principal cello with the LPO and RPO for Beecham and later of the Royal Opera House Orchestra, was a very fine orchestral cellist as well as a distinguished soloist, particularly well known for his performances of the Elgar Cello Concerto. It is not often that the clarinet section sit near to the front desk of the cellos, but on one occasion when the RPO were playing for the opera at Glyndebourne I found that was I sitting a few feet away from Pini. We were doing Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss in the original version, in which the first act is a play with incidental music, often performed separately at concerts as the suite Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. I was enormously impressed with the way he played every note with such immaculate accuracy. Only one other player had this same effect on me, the clarinettist Bernard Walton. During the Philharmonia tour in South America I sat next to him whenever we played the Brahms Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4. His absolute accuracy of intonation, note values, dynamics and rhythm were a model of orchestra playing. It takes great discipline to play like that and if not allied to a response to the music itself can lead to a sterile performance. Pini and Walton were both artists as well as remarkable craftsmen.

There was one other cellist who unfortunately had a rather short career. John Kennedy, the father of Nigel Kennedy the violinist, was a wonderful player. He had a most beautiful tone and a gift for playing a melody with tremendous charm and grace. Shirley, Lady Beecham showed me a video of a rehearsal for a concert at Lincoln Inn Fields, with Beecham conducting the RPO when Kennedy was playing the cello solo in the Overture Morning, Noon and Night by Suppé. Beecham hardly conducts at all and his face expresses sheer delight as he looks and listens to Kennedy. Part of this concert was televised, though unfortunately not the overture. Kennedy was a lovely man, high spirited and amusing, but sadly too fond of the strong waters. After a while he left the orchestra and went back to Australia where he died a few years later.

Even though there are so many ‘viola jokes’, probably the result of having been played in the past by indifferent violinists, the viola when played really well has a wonderfully rich tone. In the hands of an excellent player the viola solos in Strauss’s Don Quixote and Harold in Italy by Berlioz and the ballet Giselle by Adolphe Adam can be very beautiful.

So far I have only written about the enjoyment of listening to the individual musicians in the orchestra who have solos to play, but anyone who has played in an orchestra, even a not very good one, will tell you that there is a special thrill when sitting in the middle of the orchestra when it is going full blast in a big tutti passage. There are places, particularly in the compositions by Wagner, Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius, when the whole of the violin or cello section have a big tune fortissimo that I found tremendously exciting.

Chapter 18


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