It's time to bring Baroque back to the symphony orchestras

Matthias Pintscher
Herald Scotland

By Michael Tumelty

A hospital bed can be a good place in which to muse. There's not much else to do. And, having spent the last week or so incarcerated in such a bed, I've done a fair bit of musing. Disappointingly, through illness, I missed the end of the RSNO's winter season; and I would have been intrigued to hear Peter Oundjian's closing concert, particularly as it was one of his "project" concerts which, last season, excited such varied reactions with his lighting experiments in Shostakovich and his "picture postcard" presentation of Smetana's Ma Vlast.

But what stimulated the Muse was a single fact that found itself reiterating in my brain: this is a symphony orchestra playing Bach, and symphony orchestras don't really play Bach any more. Granted, the BBC SSO reduced its string strength for the performance, which they played with eight first violins, six seconds, four violas, four cellos and a single double bass. But in its weight and drive, it was a symphony orchestra performance: there was no concession to "period performance" or the relative modesty of a chamber orchestra performance. It was a full-on symphony orchestra performance, and a hugely effective one at that.

Why don't our symphony orchestras do this any more? Has the orchestral music of Bach, Handel, Corelli and many others – and I include Vivaldi – become totally marginalised by symphony orchestras, where big is best and Mahler is most?

And have our symphony orchestras themselves become period orchestras, trapped and limited within a time and style-frame of late 18th and, predominantly, weighty 19th-century repertoire? The issue is encyclopedic, and the surrounding landscape is littered with cans of worms. Very broadly, in the past 50 or 60 years, two things have happened: the rise of "period-style" performance, now more generally titled "historically informed" performance and, just as significantly, the unstoppable rise and all-permeating development of the chamber orchestra.

With the development of period bands from scratchy ensembles of painful uncertainty into sleek virtuoso orchestras, opening windows on to alternative views of all classical period music (and, remember, their palette now extends to 19th-century limits with Mahler and Bruckner in their repertoire), suddenly the symphony orchestra as an instrument of baroque music performance seemed leaden and leviathan. The chamber orchestra, as a concept, has driven a coach and horses through the orchestral repertoire. One of the most electrifying moments of my career occurred, many decades ago, in a conversation with Ian Ritchie, then in charge of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, who outlined to me his vision of an SCO with "400 years of repertoire" in its portfolio. Now they've done it all, and have an endless repertoire at their command.

I'm not even scratching the surface here; but, you know, I love hearing Bach on symphony orchestras and other ensembles. Years ago, in Baltimore, I listened to Yuri Temirkanov and the big Baltimore orchestra providing the accompaniment to a Bach keyboard concerto. It was like being hit by a symphonic tank. And I loved Joanna MacGregor's amplified Buenos Aires Bach. I would love to hear the RSNO strings powering through the Brandenburg Concertos. Get the right conductor, of the Pintscher/Sondergard ilk, and I bet the band would love it too. The rule today is simple: there is no rule; anything goes. C'mon, blow the symphony orchestra dust off Bach and play the damn stuff.

I did catch the closing concert of the BBC SSO's season with conductor Matthias Pintscher, the SSO's artist-in-association, who blew the audience away with a sensational performance of Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring. But what really struck me that evening was the first-half performance of Bach's Second Orchestral Suite in B minor, which received a poised, graceful and energetic performance, topped by the sheer brio of its flute-dominated finale, intoxicatingly described by John Butt in his programme note as "the nearest Bach ever came to composing a musical souffle".