LPO, Sir Roger and Emanuel

Weber: Overture to Euryanthe
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.4
Elgar: Symphony No.1

London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Roger Norringtonwith Emanuel Ax (piano

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 11 October, 2000
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

It was Roger Norrington’s usual orchestra layout that greeted the audience – antiphonal violins, cellos left-centre, double basses in a single row across the back of the platform, Elgarian percussion to the left, timpani to the right separated from the basses by trombones. For Beethoven Mr Ax sat in front of the woodwind, his unlidded, centre-right positioned, stalls-projected ‘grand’ doubling as a music-stand for Norrington’s score while he, podium-less, his back to first violins and cellos, was free to pirouette on the stage’s floor. Interesting visuals… any aural revelations?

Not surprisingly perhaps, given Norrington’s interest in ‘authentic’ performance-style, there was an emphasis on fleet tempi. Ax signalled his willingness to co-operate in period-practice by playing his opening solo’s first chord as an arpeggio. Muscular vitality informed the orchestra’s response and the whole proceeded at quite a lick with plenty of instrumental incident. I did get the impression that Ax would have welcomed more repose at times (scale-passages were slightly forced) – something, anything, that would have brought more attention to the music’s poetry. For me the piano’s quietening of the belligerent strings that is the slow movement was rendered inconsequential due to it being played ‘in the authentic manner’ – that is, clipped, short notes from the strings, which Ax responded to this with rare sensitivity, but there wasn’t much for him to quell (Ax failed though to restrain a lady who decided this was the right moment to rummage in her handbag!). A movement like this doesn’t always have to be rendered with a Furtwangler-like gravitas. There’s no harm being reminded about how things might have been – even though composers’ intentions and performance practicalities are not necessarily the same thing – but this Norrington-led view was the aural equivalent of watching a film being played too fast. The finale was the most successful, high-spirited, sparkling, with some vivid timpani playing.

Weber’s Overture had been similarly up-tempo, woodwind and trombones well to the fore. The ‘love music’ would have enjoyed just a tad more phrasal elasticity but the ghost’s appearance benefited from non-vibrato strings.

Elgar’s great First Symphony appeared slightly less auspicious on this occasion despite Norrington driving the music along. I did like though his straightforward way with the opening motto idea – ideally (and rarely) semplice as Elgar marks. Norrington’s link to the Allegro was nicely turned and this movement flowed with vivid detail and keen playing. What it lacked for me was a sense of heart, even heart-on-sleeve projection, that would have elicited those personal undercurrents of emotion that make Elgar himself.

Such moments did surface towards the end of the scherzo when Norrington put the brakes on (made a rallentando) and drew some real passion from the strings in preparation for the wonderful slow movement, which flowed but was never inwardly quiet enough. The finale made confident strides, the heartfelt lyrical episode burgeoned nicely, but what was Norrington doing with the coda? In Olympic terms he saw the finishing post, spotted a chance of Gold and a World Record time – and took both. For me he diminished the grandeur and sense of achievement this resplendent close has, but there was no doubting the LPO carried it off with immense bravura.

A CD of Elgar’s First Symphony with Sir Roger Norrington and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra has just been released on Hanssle

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