The conductorless orchestra is a phenomenon that's been growing since the 1950s, when we began to listen critically to music of the 18th-Century and saw the emergence of those fine little Italian string orchestras: a dozen players specializing in Vivaldi and Corelli, led in concert with no more than entrance and cutoff cues by the seated concertmaster.
Such small bands have, with the notable exception of the durable I Musici, fallen from favor, victims not only of the passing of the Baroque craze but as well of our growing infatuation with authentic performance practice.
This new taste is encouraging the formation of ever larger conductorless orchestras, concerned not with the Baroque but with the Classical era, including items from the standard repertory, all the way up (in time) to middle-period Beethoven.
The products of such ensembles are achieved at what some listeners (albeit not this one) may feel to be too high a price: the loss of a "personal" quality imparted by the star conductor. A loss of subjectivity, if you will.
And, there is the problem of the listener's--and the critic's--having to be more concerned with the music than with the person nominally in charge. Which rather cuts down on post-concert conversation.
But fear not, Philharmonic subscribers. Self-propelled Mahler is not around the corner--nor would it be historically justified.
Although their formation was inspired by Classical practice, it is doubtful that the 18th-Century had anything quite like the New York-based Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, a conductorless ensemble of between 25 and 30 players.
What makes Orpheus unique is that it is not rehearsed by a concertmaster or resident keyboard player, as was the case with the Classical-era orchestra. Rather, various of its members, specialists in the music of a certain composer, head core groups responsible for the preparation of each work.
On the evidence of recent live concerts in the Southland as well as three new Deutsche Grammophon recordings (all issued in both standard and compact-disc formats), the system works.
Haydn symphonies--No. 44, in E minor, the so-called "Trauer" (Mourning), and the rare and even better No. 77 in B-flat (415 365)--are ideally suited to such an orchestra, and Orpheus executes both with flawless ensemble and, in No. 77, flashing wit.
Wit again complements ensemble virtuosity in music even less readily encountered under such circumstances: eight Rossini overtures (415 363) in their original scorings, i.e., without the brass additions and wind doublings invented by late-19th-Century editors.
The familiar--"Il Barbiere di Siviglia," L'Italiana in Algeri," "La Scala di Seta"--coexist with such lesser-known delights as "Il Turco in Italia" and "La Cambiale di Matrimonio." All are projected with grace and bristling energy by these remarkable artists. Listen, for a marvelous instance, to the exquisitely turned flute, oboe and bassoon solos in "L'inganno felice."
And finally, the two Serenades of Antonin Dvorak (415 364): in E, Opus 22, for strings, and in D minor for wind octet.
The D-minor piece is chamber music in the traditional sense, easily within the compass of the Orpheus wind virtuosos, who render it with idiomatic rhythmicality and verve.
The String Serenade, however, is a dynamically tricky orchestral piece that, furthermore, falls flat without the creamy legato which is the province of some of the big-name conductors. Yet Orpheus gives as subtly variegated, as cohesive and as schmaltzy a performance as any recorded by the glossy likes of Kubelik, Marriner or Karajan.
The cushioned, vibratoed, modern string sound of Orpheus is startlingly contrasted by L'Estro Armonico, a conductorless British period-instruments ensemble specializing in Haydn and quixotically named after an opus by Vivaldi.
In the latest volume of their ongoing Haydn series for CBS (13M 39685, 3 standard discs), six symphonies from the years 1771-73 are presented: Nos. 42, 45-47, 51, 65. Only one, No. 45 ("Farewell"), is at all familiar. And while not all are masterpieces, each has its share of Haydnesque pleasures: quirky modulations, off-kilter rhythms and bracing snatches of melody.
There can be no denying the powerful totalities of the "Farewell" or Nos. 46 (in B), with its dark harmonies and spiky rhythms, or the technically demanding (above all for the first horn) No. 51, whose wild concluding rondo is the prototype for many later, not necessarily superior, Haydn finales.
The performances by L'Estro Armonico, led by concertmaster Derek Solomons, are not for those require their Haydn quaint. These are aggressive, dry-eyed interpretations, fast-paced and tautly inflected, with an authentic roughness of string tone naturally suited to the characteristic Haydn energy and bumptiousness.