Formed in Italy and with residences in various European venues, Spira mirabilis is a group of young professional musicians many of whom play in leading orchestras. They gather together to study a major work and in due course realise it by mutual agreement on how the music should be performed; a conductor is not required. At the Queen Elizabeth Hall it was Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony; followed, after a short interval, by a comprehensive discussion with the audience. Ninety-percent of the questions posed were relevant and searching and the replies that came from whichever musician were illuminating.
On its website, Spira mirabilis boldly declares: “We are not an orchestra who plays without a conductor; we are a group of committed and passionate professional musicians who want to keep studying music together.” An obvious advantage seems to be that the music becomes refreshingly free of impositions made by a conductor regarding tempo and phrasing. The speed at which each movement was taken was comfortable and all sounded entirely natural. The introductory Poco sostenuto gave space for the woodwinds to be expressive and the Vivace pushed forward excitingly but without hurry. A feature was the considerable force with which chords were achieved, effectively contrasting the well-controlled passages of pianissimo.
The score was respected, there were no variations of speed or unnecessary emphases yet a momentary relaxation led into one first-movement melody – very effective – but how did the players unanimously decide to do this? Similarly in the Allegretto, the repetitive five-note pulse had the final note refined away – a good idea that enhanced the phrasing of the music but every member must have agreed to it.
Ensemble was remarkable – the participants’ only guide being a firm down-bow by the leader at beginnings and ends of movements and occasionally at important fortissimo chords; there was only the minor moment of untogether entry, no more than can be heard in many other accounts. The strings mostly adopted unified bowing and the woodwind solos were expressive and delivered in the way each musician felt that the part should be phrased. Only once did this raise a query when the bassoon-led second subject of the Allegretto was somewhat relaxed. The precision of the Scherzo was notable, the Presto marking fully honoured, with the required slower pace for the Trio well-judged. The hard-driven Finale, featuring some thrilling moments was exciting but not rushed. Horns cut through with brilliance and security of rhythm was enhanced by the timpanist’s accuracy, her hand-tuned drums struck with small-headed sticks providing the ideal timbre.
After receiving applause, the orchestra then descended from the platform and apart from grouping trumpets and timpani together, arranged themselves at random on the steps and in the aisles of the auditorium to give the second movement again. It was no less impressive; amazingly, every part was clear and balance remained acceptable – Beethoven in surround-sound. Best described as a representation of Beethoven with each musician given the freedom to play as they felt the composer intended, what I experienced was among the most illuminating readings of this Symphony that I have heard in a concert.