|Rehearsing and Recording - Arthur Butterworth
What sort of rehearsal arrangements were customary in Bach's time
for the regular Sunday performances at the St. Thomaskirche in Leipzig
it is perhaps hard to know. Latter-day academics have speculated
and claim to know how things were done, but we are never likely
to know precisely how they managed. What sort of overall preparation
might "Messiah" have had at the first performance in Dublin,
one wonders? In Haydn's and Mozart's days things might not have
been much different. I is said that at the first performance of
the Beethoven Violin Concerto, only the soloist had actually seen
the part and practised it beforehand; the orchestra played it more
or less at sight.
So what kind of public performances resulted? Since recordings
did not exist we shall never really know. Habeneck, the French conductor
spent more than a year rehearsing the Beethoven 9th Symphony with
the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra before attempting a public performance,
calling forth the admiration - and indeed the envy - of Berlioz
and Wagner both of whom constantly complained of lack of sufficient
Certainly since the later years of the nineteenth century performance
practises on the continent - especially in Germany - have demanded
considerable rehearsal time. It is expected by orchestral players
that they will be called upon to spend many tedious and boring hours
in rehearsal, often in playing through music they are already familiar
with: the classical symphonies, overtures, concertos.
But time is money
In Britain it has never been quite the
same as on the continent. Players in this country have long been
regarded as the finest sight-readers in the world; able to play
virtually anything put before them. This might not, of course, always
have meant performances of the finest interpretative insight but
remarkably compelling for all that.
In the earlier days of the classical recording industry it was
probably axiomatic that only after considerable familiarity with
a work - thorough rehearsal and several concert performances - would
it be possible to contemplate recording it effectively. There were
good reasons for this: the 4½ minute discs had to be flawless;
there was no going back to make minute corrections as there is nowadays
with modern technology.
Without the intention to record a new work it was more or less
routine in England for a concert only to be afforded one rehearsal.
Sir Henry Wood's Promenade Concerts were economically possible with
but the one three-hour rehearsal on the morning of the actual concert.
It is amazing to reflect what was achieved in this way; new and
technically demanding works heard in London for the very first time
with but one "run-through"!
However, while it has in more recent times become possible - and
to pay for - extra rehearsal, this is by no means always the situation.
The Cheltenham Festivals of the 1950s provided an example of what
could be achieved with thorough and adequate preparation. The Hallé
Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli spent a week each July in presenting
new works. This was preceded by a whole week of rehearsals in Manchester
before the orchestra travelled to Cheltenham. It was a great privilege
for me to have my own First Symphony given its first performance
there in 1957. I find it hardly credible now to reflect on the fact
that the Symphony had no less than a total of nineteen hours of
rehearsal! This included the first hour of reading through it, which
I conducted myself in the Royal Hall, Harrogate, while Barbirolli
listened; followed by sectional rehearsals in Manchester the following
week and a final rehearsal at Cheltenham on the morning of the performance.
The enormous prestige and finesse of those Hallé performances
at Cheltenham in the halcyon days of the 1950s were due to the meticulous,
detailed rehearsals which Barbirolli demanded, and it paid off handsomely.
I have conducted this First Symphony a few times since, but the
most rehearsal it has been allowed has been around three hours in
total, sharing time with having to rehearse other - more routine
and familiar - things in the programme.
However, even three hours might seem reasonably generous in the
context of recording practice. It is nowadays routinely possible
to make a commercial recording of a new and unfamiliar work on the
"rehearse-record" principle. This is possible for two
good reasons: The technicalities of the recording process itself
allows minute corrections to be made in the progress of recording
itself, so that minute flaws of every kind can be more or less immediately
erased by the recording engineer - always himself a most astute
and percipient musician as well as being an electronic technician.
In this way a passage can be played, and assessed as it is being
rehearsed, and then immediately "performed" - in other
words recorded and preserved. The second reason is equally if not
more significant: orchestral players - especially in this country
- are so technically proficient, and (what is more) musically gifted
that it is ever more possible to give a compelling and wholly persuasive
performance on record. The same applies to recordings made in other
countries nowadays; the actual "need" - as some conductors
would put it - for intensive, repeated rehearsal does not now seem
to be so compelling as once it might have been. Of course, there
must always be the consideration that repeated concert performances
of a work ensure a familiarity to the performers that a "rehearse-record"
situation cannot quite bring about. However, we live in a world
not just of artistic idealism but of practical economics, and we
must take account of this.