Beethoven: Leonora Overture no. 2, Symphony no. 2; Schumann: Symphony no 2

Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Norrington

Usher Hall, 8 December 2009 5 stars

Roger Norrington

It is a startling thought that for some members of the average classical concert audience, Sir Roger Norrington is almost as avant-garde a figure as Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, with whom he shares a seventy-fifth anniversary this year. A passionate advocate for 'authentic', or 'historically-informed' performance, the sound of a Norrington-directed orchestra can be quite strikingly unlike the 'normal', rich and cosy melos that has become customary in the twentieth century.

Addressing the audience prior to the Beethoven symphony, Norrington explained that the principal difference, dispensing with vibrato—'the wiggly stuff', as he calls it—deals with a stylistic innovation that was introduced to the orchestra at about the time that radio and gramophone recordings were becoming familiar, in the 1920s and 1930s. For the RSNO, the week's rehearsals amounted to something resembling a masterclass in the history of performance practice, something analogous to the restoration of an old master's painting.

Bringing this approach to the standard symphony orchestra entails compromises, all the same: modern wind and brass instruments are possibly more distant than the strings from what an eighteenth or even mid-nineteenth century composer would regard as familiar. Numbers are another issue. In the first half, Norrington used a modest complement of strings, nevertheless larger than Beethoven would have used in order to accommodate the acoustic of the significantly larger space. One last thing: the double-bass section was placed in the centre at the back, but raised to just in front of where the choir would be sitting. Aside from the visual spectacle, this created a strangely modern sonority, a bit like the woofer in a 5.1 audio setup.

There was something curiously modern, too, about the fate of Beethoven's first Leonora overture: apparently the previews were bad (Prince Lichnowski didn't like it), so the second was composed to take its place for the first realization of the opera in 1805. One of the recurring criticisms of the 'authentic' approach is that it is not possible to listen with the ears—in this instance—of an 1805 Viennese audience. However, the complaint that there is altogether too much music in this overture is probably valid—for an overture in a theatrical performance. As a concert piece, though, its ceaseless, ebullient invention earns it a welcome place in the repertoire, especially when its liveliness is complemented with the clarity that Norrington's reading brings.

Along with the wiggly stuff, out goes Romantic over-dramatization, but in truth not much is lost from the second symphony. If we discard all the speculation about Beethoven's psychic state at his famous Heiligenstadt retreat, grappling with increasing deafness, and pay attention instead to the professional composer delivering a score, the struggle to balance invention and form amounts to a pretty similar story, one that resolves in time over a series of works. Here, the short, urgent, asymmetric phrases of the opening Allegro and again in the Scherzo put me in mind, in flashes, of the Op. 95 quartet—an odd connection to make, right enough. The continuity between the two is that every aspect of the formal design is 'doing something', here the first movement's bridge from first to second theme almost doesn’t get there because it starts taking off on its own. (Of course in the Op 95, everything is more rigorously disciplined, but that's a story for another time.) Norrington kept a light hand on the tiller throughout—maybe a little too light if one includes his disconcerting habit of turning to the audience and grinning amiably mid-movement—and the RSNO responded with a nicely modulated and well-rounded reading of this gem of a symphony.

For the second half, the string section was expanded to full size. Norrington explained that this would be normal for summer performances in the Leipzig of Mendelssohn's and Schumann's period. To balance this force, the woodwinds would be doubled, and so they were tonight. That had a mildly surprising effect too: one could begin to hear the organ-like textures that would become Bruckner's signature—something that the wiggle-free strings enhances.

Schumann's second symphony has something about it that distinguishes it from the other three, perhaps a seriousness, perhaps a sense of coordination and integration. The very strange opening, with its three octaves of trumpets, horns and trombones calling against a dark and unstable string countermelody, is difficult to bring off—but the orchestra responded superbly. It was a little disappointing, then—and hard to explain—that the opening of the third movement should be on the scratchy side. Still, that was a minor blemish, one that was quickly put aside. By the time the boisterous finale had reached its conclusion, the audience was ready to show its warm acclaim.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Roger Norrington


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