Philharmonia/Norrington – 14 December

Benvenuto Cellini – Overture
Concerto for viola and clarinet, Op.88
Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95 (From the New World)

Isabelle van Keulen (viola)
Michael Collins (clarinet)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Roger Norrington

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 14 December, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Some things as expected, some not. The beginning of the Cellini overture was surprisingly deliberate, welcome for the articulacy. As the piece developed, however, Norrington’s pulse-related traversal (to the opening flourish) hung fire, especially in the lyrical episodes. The expected non-vibrato strings (violins antiphonal) had their moments, yet surely this ’correct’ sound would now make more impression if used as an ornament – reversing received historicism in fact – as another colour on the palette? Although Norrington and the Philharmonia relished Berlioz’s brilliant orchestration and accepted his extravagance (three timpani, three players), a comment immediately afterwards that there was something “antiseptic” to this rendition seemed apt.

For Roger Norrington, the composer is the boss. In reading any score, he trusts the creator. One should not expect this to be literal, but there is an element of dissolving responsibility. However, at several points during this concert, holes in the philosophy were evident. In the concerto, van Keulen played with fruity vibrato and Collins provided rich tone (and overshadowed her in unisons); the orchestral strings being vibrato-less sounded weedy in comparison. In the symphony, brass and timpani were allowed full volume. The strings continued being the poor relations, hard-driven ones too, and were duly swamped in fortissimos as well as being a disparate soundworld.

That said, the symphony’s famous ’Largo’ responded well to Norrington’s direct approach. The strings’ pallor of religiosity – not, one imagines, how Norrington would describe unadorned string sound – brings an austerity of means that might be considered appropriate for the confidences shared in this universally familiar music. Jane Marshall’s spontaneous-sounding cor anglais solo was beautifully shaped; Norrington’s refusal to indulge (the movement over in 10 minutes) didn’t lose the music its feeling.

Earlier, the symphony’s melancholy slow introduction and up-tempo exposition went for maximum contrast – the composer’s homesickness on arrival in New York against the hustle and bustle of a busy Manhattan street (if you will) – yet the speed of the latter was simply too fast, expression lost in freneticism. As might be expected from Norrington’s ’conductor as servant’ stance, the three-part exposition was duly taken in one tempo as Dvořák implies. He also requests the exposition be repeated, which Norrington ignored. Fair dos (it’s a repeat I’m not keen being made), yet Norrington ignored an implicit instruction (and not one Dvořák habitually made: the first movements of symphonies 7 and 8, for example, are not so constructed). The ’Scherzo’ was driven, its second part sounding convincing even faster, but there was no let-up for the ’Trio’. Vital, yes, but also mechanical and wearing, which made the ’Finale’ brusque, one episode of reflection aside.

Return to the earliest recordings of the ’New World’ (Hamilton Harty and Erich Kleiber, both from the late ’twenties) to hear the score departed from. Dig out recordings from Toscanini and Paray for the foot hard (heartlessly) on the accelerator, or go to Colin Davis, Kondrashin and (more or less) Barbirolli for the exposition to taken in a single breath. Most conductors tend to lose the repeat. Davis and Kondrashin take it – does that make them more ’authentic’? Norrington could have taken more time, showed more identity with the emotions of the music, introduced more lilt (certainly in the ’Trio’); maybe the Philharmonia would have welcomed playing more intrinsically and less machine-like, the ’Largo’ aside. It’s a conundrum! The music has matured over a century and more: to recall its infancy doesn’t necessarily do it justice.

Max Bruch (1838-1920) survives through his G minor violin concerto (the first of three) and, to a lesser extent, the Scottish Fantasy. The late viola and clarinet concerto’s three movements are over in less than twenty minutes. Written about the same time as Stravinsky’s Petrushka (The Rite of Spring just around the corner) and Sibelius’s darkly concentrated Fourth Symphony – 1911 that is – Bruch opts for nostalgia, to the good manners of the previous century. The opening moderate movements are respectively rhapsodic and gently dancing and seem to distil the fruits of conservatism; the ’Finale’ is a rousing mix of Mendelssohn and Schumann. I’m a Bruch fan, and it was good to hear the gentle Max given an airing with something unfamiliar. Incongruity of tones aside, this was an affectionate rendition, the second movement encored. Sir Roger might like to bring a Bruch symphony (there are three of these too) to his next Philharmonia concert, which would be equable to his geniality, robustness and learning.

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