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If the conductor is the alchemist, what does that make the orchestra? Base metal? Merely the equipment for turning that worthless substance into gold?

A journalist and broadcaster, Service explains that his fascination with the figure of the conductor began in childhood. But his book does not descend into fawning reverence, ignoring or belittling the contribution of the musicians. What could have been a series of hagiographies is actually an intelligent account of the working methods of six conductor-orchestra partnerships – the LSO (Service also chucks in Gergiev’s World Orchestra for Peace), Concertgebouw, Bamberg Symphony, Berlin Phil, the Budapest and Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

He communicates the differences in result and process well, and is alert to those moments where an orchestra appears to be acting against received wisdom – the Berlin Phil works because, not in spite, of the fact its musicians play like soloists; Gergiev’s famously trembling hands are not a nightmare to follow. And he listens to what musicians have to say too.

There is an occasional fondness for hyperbole. One performance may have been the result of ‘psychokinesis’; another was ‘a huge existential voyage from one way of being to another’; on another occasion ‘there was not a single musician on stage who did not give themselves completely to their performance, musically, intellectually, and physically’ (nice that the Berlin Phil players were so willing to return their questionnaires); and an audience for Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique wasn’t ‘just watching something happen to a fictional hero on a journey to the destruction of his body and soul, but going through it all ourselves’.

However, this is a problem afflicting many critics, lost for words faced with superlative performance (I do wish they’d get it looked at, though). But he is much more attentive to the inner workings of an orchestra than most allow themselves to be, and that is refreshing.

TOBY DELLER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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