Prom 43: Non-vibrato Magic? D major Overdose?

Beethoven
Violin Concerto in D, Op.61
Mozart
Divertimento in D, K136
Serenade in D, K320 (Posthorn)

Joshua Bell (violin)

Camerata Salzburg
Sir Roger Norrington


Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 21 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London


Nicely timed to coincide with the Sony CD release, Sir Roger Norrington, Joshua Bell and Camerata Salzburg reunited – this time before a packed Royal Albert Hall audience. Norrington has been the Camerata’s Chief Conductor for the past five years although this is their first time at the Proms.

Norrington comes to music with an academic head on his shoulders. His style is undemonstrative and he often conducts without reference to a score; tonight he did not use a score at all. Often criticised for an almost clinical approach, the benefit, when he gets it right, is a clarity that makes one say, “so that’s how it’s supposed to be played”. The performance of the Divertimento was just such an occasion – captivating. Written in 1772, when Mozart was only 16 years old, very little is known of this work. It was written as one of three composed in the same year, and one of some twenty works taking the title Divertimento. The three are, however, the only works to be composed for strings alone. As one would expect, Norrington had the two violin groups sitting opposite each other and placed the cellos and basses centre-left, which emphasised antiphonal effects even to the audience sitting to the sides.

In the Beethoven the spell seemed to be worked by the sorcerer’s apprentice rather than the sorcerer himself. Norrington and Bell have recorded the Beethoven on Sony. This Proms reading could have been by a completely different pair. I have doubts about the CD too – the performance says nothing new, and with over 90 versions of the concerto in the catalogue, why record it again if there is nothing new to say? Had tonight’s performance been similar to that of the recording, I would have rated it safe if enjoyable and commented on Bell’s cadenzas as saying more about him than Beethoven.

In the RAH, to underline the “chamber music” ideal, Norrington and Bell stood side by side, with Bell encouraging the orchestra in the same manner that we might expect of Kennedy. Chamber music is a difficult and precarious art where it is too easy to become self-indulgent – there were moments in this performance where the music’s pace almost stopped as a consequence.

The overall shape of the long first movement is tricky at the best of times. With conductor and soloist taking turns to wallow in the extraordinary sound that Camerata Salzburg can produce, the greatest victim was Beethoven. The ’Larghetto’ second movement, often played too slowly, was taken at a comfortable pace, though, again, it seemed to loose its way halfway through. Straight into the third movement and I was reminded of the words set to the opening theme: “Thank God it’s over / Thank God it’s over / This bloody tune is driving me mad!” Maybe I was the only one to miss the magic of this performance judging by the early applause of the audience, almost before the last chord. [No, I didn’t like it either. Very disappointing after the excellent CD, which I have reviewed for this site – Ed.]

Mozart’s ’Posthorn’ Serenade renewed my confidence in Norrington’s wizardry. Mozart’s serenades and divertimentos were never intended for the concert hall, which might explain the length and diversity of this one. Mozart himself disassembled the work into three groups of independent movements, so perhaps listening to it complete is a bit like eating a whole black-forest gateau in one sitting; then again, I do have a sweet tooth!

Norrington largely left his orchestra to its own devices with the occasional gesture to keep them on track. The playing was one of beauty, typified by delightful phrasing and timely articulation – the work of a different orchestra and conductor to that in the Beethoven. The post-horn’s delightful solo in the penultimate movement was played without a hitch – no mean feat considering how difficult it is to keep this instrument in tune and under control; its player, one of the trumpeters, was suitably dressed in a cap. Norrington saluted him at the end of the solo – what better way is there to say “well done”?

For an encore a brief trip to the twentieth-century was logged into the conductor’s magic wand, a short overture by Iván Eröd written to celebrate the coming of the year 2000, the year-too-early start to the millennium and new century! Norrington led the orchestra away from a delighted audience; this orchestra I certainly hope to see again soon.



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