Philharmonia/Norrington – 12 December

Don Giovanni – Overture
Violin Concerto No.2 in D, K211
Rondo in A for violin and string orchestra, D438
Symphony No.9 in C, D944 (Great)

Benjamin Schmid (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Roger Norrington

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 12 December, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

A puzzling and uneven curate’s egg of a concert. Roger Norrington has long relished his role as agent provocateur and high priest of the ’authentic’ movement. On this occasion, rather like an actor who has played the same role one too many times, he appeared to be in danger of slipping into self-parody.

This tendency manifested itself in peculiarly acute form in the overture to Don Giovanni. The opening is marked ’Andante’; Norrington chose a tempo more akin to ’Allegro moderato’. Excellently though the Philharmonia coped, the drama of the famous rising and falling string scales, underpinned by the basses’ dotted rhythm, went for practically nothing. When arrived at the main allegro of the overture, Norrington chose a notably cautious speed and still managed to get the orchestra to play behind the beat. Along with the Commendatore, one found oneself muttering “Pentiti” (Repent).

Things improved dramatically with the arrival of the excellent Benjamin Schmid, clearly a major talent, who treated us to some supremely beautiful playing. The Mozart may be a lesser piece than the three later concertos, but here the slow movement sang with a rare sweetness and purity, rather as Grumiaux might have played it, and the orchestra accompanied with complete sensitivity, albeit without vibrato unlike the soloist. Rather special, and Schubert’s Rondo was given with much charm even if it’s rather overlong.

In the ’Great C major’, Norrington’s opening ’Andante’ was less a walk more a quick march. Did people really walk this quickly in the early nineteenth-century? The speed adopted made little sense of the transition into the movement’s allegro core – instead of carrying us forward on a tidal surge of pent-up energy, the transition sounded merely gabbled, the allegro itself, taken at rather a moderate speed, sounded under-powered. To one’s surprise with this conductor, the exposition repeat was not taken. There was also a curious reluctance to observe dynamics. For instance, the movement’s second theme on the winds, marked piano, emerges out of double forte, the point surely being to underline a complete change of direction, rather as if one had turned a corner on a country walk and arrived at a fresh vista. Here it was played at a healthy mezzo-forte, leaving little room for the crescendo five bars later. This was symptomatic of the performance as a whole and this first movement slipped by without sufficient care to give necessary point and focus.

Thereafter things began to improve gradually. The ’Andante’ was certainly ’con moto’. The music can stand this and, played with no vibrato, some details which get lost in ’conventional’ performances, notably the all-important bass line, emerged with clarity. The ’Scherzo’ marked a further improvement and sprang energetically into life. The ’Finale’ was a little more problematic. Both the tempo and energy were lower than in a Proms 2001 performance Norrington gave with the Stuttgart Radio SO. When we arrived at the concluding thunderous repeated Cs, which bring the symphony to a triumphant close, the impression was less of bounding energy, more of relentlessness.

Whilst it is undoubtedly interesting to hear Schubert 9 played in this way, this performance was hardly the hoped for revelation (unlike Brüggen’s recent Beethoven 7 with the same orchestra). Many mainstream conductors such as Simon Rattle have now absorbed the key lessons of the period lobby whilst retaining music’s fundamental expressiveness. With Norrington, once one gets beyond differences in the sound and orchestral textures, the actual music-making itself now seems rather penny-plain and hair shirt, at least on this occasion.

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