Prom 4: 23rd July 2001

Overture – Oberon
Vaughan Williams
A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No.3)
Symphony No.9 (Great C major)

Sibylla Rubens (soprano)
SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Roger Norrington

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 23 July, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The representation of the mechanical was a predominant feature of this Prom with three-quarters of Schubert ’in a groove’ and the faster sections of Oberon’s Overture emphatic rather than exhilarating. That Norrington can suspend time was evident at Weber’s opening, a magical landscape initially peppered by coughs and sneezes. The reflective clarinet-led second subject was flexibly turned.

Instrumental blend, incident and dialogue (the latter enhanced by antiphonal violins) are a significant part of Norrington’s musicianship – buoyant rhythms and off-the-cuff interjections drove Schubert 9. This was swift Schubert, organic and section-integrated certainly – but relentless and, by the scherzo’s end, mind-numbingly repetitious, Schubert’s prolixity underlined by every repeat being taken. Norrington spared us twice-through the last movement’s exposition: not only does this study in perpetual motion not withstand either elongation or the interruption of returning to the beginning, but in order to do so Schubert introduces some pretty duff first-time bars. At a still quick tempo, but one more relaxed than hitherto, tensile momentum now replaced by springy underlay, this ’express train’ made for joyful listening, its arrow-like trajectory hitting the bullseye in a resolute coda.

It can be argued that Norrington played Schubert as Schubert intended – the cannon-shot timpani in the one-beat ’slow’ movement being more suspect. Although he is a keen and observant exponent of the music’s surface, which is not to suggest superficiality, the use of non-vibrato strings and period ’manners’ and the seeming denial of change and experience that has occurred over the last one-hundred-and-seventy years – both in music and the world generally – quashes music’s re-creativity and contemporary relevance.

Norrington revelled in Schubert’s vitality and encouraged more applause after a burst of it at the end of the first movement. This was all most amusing – doesn’t it though take away from the experience of engaging with great art? The encore, ’March’ from Matinees Musicales, was given a clipped, circus-band rendition – the bloke next to me thought it was hilarious; Britten’s carefully-crafted affection for Rossini seemed not to matter.

Vaughan Williams’s poignant, deeply moving ’requiem’ for those that fell on French soil in World War One never fully engaged in this performance, even with vibrato! There was a lack of identification with VW’s overall quietude and soul-baring expression. The rhapsodic first movement did catch a fine balance between country-ramble and war clouds; allusions to murky undergrowth inveigled rapt pastoralism. The improvisatory wind solos were well taken but orchestral polyphony needed more time to mesh and speak distinctly. The RAH’s space was well used – the second movement’s trumpet solo called from afar and did so with militaristic timbre; Sibylla Rubens was high and distant, seeming to ruminate her haunting vocalise on the fields of sorrow. If the scherzo lacked menace – not ’moderato’ or ’pesante’ enough – and the folksong element was stiff, the finale’s elegiac threnody did touch nerves, the pealing-bell horns towards the close offering some promise. Ultimately British reserve and a somewhat ’outside’ orchestral response – despite sensitive and committed playing, as throughout the evening – left this symphony in an emotional vacuum.

  • This Prom is re-broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday, 25 July, at 2 o’clock

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