Island Passion

As time passes, identifying national playing idiosyncrasies becomes more difficult. Fifty years ago, while attending the Eastman School of Music, my class mates and I had great fun listening to recordings and trying to identify the nationality of the orchestra and when possible even the specific orchestra. Brass playing was so different then from country to country, that it was absolutely not difficult to make an educated guess as to the national origin of a recording. French brass was thin sounding, the trumpets and horns used a fast nervous “Edith Piaf” vibrato, the balance was very top heavy and intonation was dubious. The Germans were heavy and thick, usually were quite late but had a very warm sound especially in piano. The Italians were out of tune, very mixed in styles throughout the section and very naive in their performance of any music other than Italian. The Americans were loud, together, usually in tune plus it was quite easy to identify the specific orchestra. The English were very light, correct and dispassionate.

Today things have greatly changed; the French are big and unified, the Germans are clear, energized and still warm, The Italians, who had the reputation at one time of quite low level playing, have become world class, the Americans are homogeneous and the English are still light, correct and dispassionate. (Please read “5000 years of Isolation”). In that elusive balance between intellect and viscerality, the brain and the heart, British musicians are the least likely to show passion in their music making.

Dennis Brain, the British horn player who was killed prematurely in an accident in 1957, is revered today throughout the world as one of the all-time great brass players, he was a master of technique, clarity, articulation, and elegance but he was not a passionate player; that balance of viscerality and intellect was very one sided. Although this imbalance is an audible British idiosyncrasy there is some notable exceptions. The late British cellist Jacqueline Du Prè was a formidable example of passion in music and also showed an elegant balance of the heart and brain polarities.

Perhaps a comparison between Dennis Brain and Jacqueline Du Prè is unfair, one is a string player and the other a brass player and there is a generation gap between their careers. Fifty years ago brass players simply did not show a great deal of expression in their musicality and even today there is still a great leaning in that direction. I have asked the following question over the last 25 years in lectures all over the world: “If you were to imagine hearing a performance of the Schumann Adagio and Allegro played by the greatest horn player in the world and the world's greatest cellist, which would you prefer”? The results were always heavily in favor of the cellist even when the audience was largely horn players.

The question we must ask ourselves now is, “Can't brass instruments play with the same musicality, the same passion as string players”?

And a question for the British players: Is the absence of passion simply a national characteristic or a musical choice”?

One of the most dynamic musicians of our time is Sir Simon Rattle, British conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. Certainly musicians like Sir Simon and Jacqueline Du Prè prove beyond any question that passion and dynamism can be a powerful part of a complete British musician.

Dynamism is far more than just loud and soft: it's age and youth, genius and naivety, innocence and worldliness, masculine and feminine, good and evil, aggressive and passive, instinct and intellect and so the list could continue, are all necessary parts of music. Why not use them?

Roger - London, February 21, 2007

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