Philharmonia/Norrington Nicola Benedetti

Semiramide – Overture
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55

Nicola Benedetti (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Roger Norrington

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 4 June, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

On the face of it this Sunday afternoon programme should have been the sort of thing that the Philharmonia Orchestra does best. The reality was rather different. Sir Roger Norrington has long enjoyed his role as an agent provocateur. However the joke is wearing rather thin. On this occasion we were offered performances of routine competence at best and amateurish ineptitude at worst such as one seldom hears from a major orchestra.

The afternoon got off to a distinctly lumbering start with one of the dullest accounts of “Semiramide” one could imagine, rather like last night’s champagne. In fairness, there were some fine individual contributions from the woodwind soloists in this, the grandest of Rossini’s overtures, but Norrington’s podium antics seemed to have little to do with what was actually going on around him.

Rather more agreeable was Nicola Benedetti’s rendering of the Tchaikovsky. Technically armour-plated she certainly is not – her intonation in the first movement certainly left something to be desired, although she did well with the cadenza – and there is a genuine unostentatious warmth to her playing which communicates readily and is highly appealing. The ‘Canzonetta’ had a fetching simplicity and was greatly helped by the fine contributions from oboe, flute and bassoon whilst the finale was taken straight and avoided that ‘hammed-up’ quality which so often afflicts it.

There are many ways of approaching a great piece of music – and, despite this week’s controversy about the composer in the letters column of “The Times”, for most music-lovers Elgar’s First Symphony undoubtedly fits that description – but it generally pays to take heed of what the composer actually wrote, especially when the composer also happened to be an effective conductor.

For the avoidance of doubt, at the beginning of the Symphony’s score on a separate page Elgar actually spells out in writing certain significant features which should be observed – for example, “at 66” (the Trio) “the whole section in B flat and the corresponding section later should be played più tranquillo without absolutely breaking the flow of the tempo”, something Norrington contrived to ignore.

Of course, one can take it that any performance directed by Norrington will eschew vibrato (even when it so obviously formed part of the Elgar performance tradition), but what was doubly infuriating was his sheer ineptitude when it came to the basic ‘nuts and bolts’ of orchestral execution such as controlling dynamics (or even attempting to observe them), choice of tempo (the link into the slow movement was self-indulgently protracted beyond belief), the absence of any attempt at phrasing (even where Elgar asks for a passage to be played “in a broad cantabile manner with the fullest tone from the strings”) and a complete inability to sort out the essential from the subsidiary.

Coarse, alternatively bombastic or mawkish and indifferently played, this was the sort of reading which gives succour to Elgar’s detractors. In 40 years I have not heard a more disagreeable account.

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