Conductors often discover a great deal more about a musical work when they prepare for a performance than those of us who study scores, read background references or undertake research; there’s something about working through a piece of music from the inside, as it were, which opens eyes to all manner of detail missed by those who are actively looking for it. So it is that, when I have a chance to talk to a conductor about a performance, I have every expectation that I shall learn something revelatory. Unlike instrumentalists who often like to produce their own programme notes to support their particular interpretation – or in the case of some concert pianists, to support their particular political or social agenda - I know of no major conductors who do this. Which is a great shame, for we lose out on the benefit of a wealth of knowledge often passed down through the generations through complex teacher/pupil relationships. Orchestral musicians are well aware of the pearls of wisdom that drop from conductors’ lips, but unless a programme-note writer happens to be in on the rehearsal, he misses so much of value. As such I am in the hugely fortunate position in being able, on occasions, to attend rehearsals not as an observer but in my other capacity as an orchestral organist. Of course the works I am involved in are few and far between, but I have been privy to some real insights on such repertory as the Strauss tone poems, Respighi Roman Trilogy and the Tchaikovsky Manfred Symphony.
It’s that last piece which exercises my curiosity the most, and has done ever since I first heard it in a live performance in London in the late-1960s. I have one burning question about Tchaikovsky’s Manfred which, half a century of reading and asking questions, has yet to be answered. Why, for the one time in his entire composing career, did Tchaikovsky stick an organ into the orchestra in the closing bars of the Manfred Symphony? He never did anywhere else – we have to discount 1812, of course - so why did he add one here?
What hit me between the eyes when I heard that London performance all those years ago was the blazing organ bursting in with high drama in the final bars; a moment almost as exciting as the instrument’s entry in the final part of the Saint-Saëns Third Symphony. When I bought my first recording of the work - Vienna Philharmonic and Maazel on Decca SXL – the organ entry was just as amazing. But when, in the 1980s, I first had to play in the work with the BBC Welsh Orchestra and Norman del Mar, I realised that a stirring organ entry, coming in with all guns blazing, was not at all what Tchaikovsky wrote. He specified a Harmonium, a very different instrument indeed when set within an orchestral context, and while the part is marked to be played with all the stops drawn, the sound a harmonium produces with all stops drawn is very, very different from that which an organ does. Conscientiously, I tried to imitate the harmonium effect, but the conductor insisted he wanted the big organ sound and told me that it was what Tchaikovsky wanted; believing that he only wrote it for harmonium because an organ was not available. I took the conductor at his word as del Mar was an acknowledged authority on orchestration, but was not really convinced. (Ironically Saint-Saëns, who wrote other music for both instruments, sanctioned the use of a harmonium in the Third Symphony if an organ was not available.)
When the Malaysian Philharmonic first did it during their Singapore tour in 2001, I asked Kees Bakels (a conductor whose intimate knowledge of the music he performs is truly awesome) whether he thought Tchaikovsky really meant organ when he actually wrote harmonium. He agreed, citing both Mravinsky and Svetlanov, and regretted that we didn’t have a harmonium to hand to try out. Ironically, on the afternoon of the concert the Victoria Hall organ developed a cypher on the Principal ranks and we had to use such a reduced and odd organ registration, that the effect was almost exactly like a harmonium. And, as Bakels agreed, it worked well. Recent performances at Hong Kong and Singapore, both with Russian conductors (the Singapore one was directed by no less a figure than Rozhdestvensky), have given much prominence to the organ, and with the MPO slated to do it at the beginning of April, I again started wondering about how to approach this musical conundrum.
As it happened, conductor Thomas Sanderling has side-stepped the issue pretty neatly; he’s cut out the last half of the last movement and pasted in its place a reprise of the closing section of the first movement. He suggests that this was a practice “common in Russia throughout the 20th century”, and while it solves, at a stroke, the organ/harmonium problem – there is no music for either to play – it doesn’t seem a convincing solution at all; after all nobody questions the authenticity of the final movement’s conclusion. I’ve never heard of anyone doing this before and, while all the Russian conductors I’ve ever heard of who have performed this work, have maintained the original ending, even if they can’t’ decide on the organ or harmonium, I wonder what support there is for Sanderling’s claim. In the normal course of events I would call it a bit of quirkiness; but I have long since learnt that conductors of Sanderling’s pedigree often know more about the music than anyone else, so I await the concert with bated breath; for once in the stalls rather than in the organ loft.
And, if you want to join me, the concert is on 2nd and 3rd April and, so I am reliably informed, tickets are still available at the DFP box office.