William Tell – Overture
Cello Concerto in C
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55
Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello)
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Sir Roger Norrington
Reviewed by: Edward Clark
Reviewed: 22 July, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Sir Roger Norrington has form in performing a British symphony with his German orchestra at the Proms. A few years ago he played Vaughan Williams’s A Pastoral Symphony. Now it is Elgar’s First, already documented by this team on Hänssler, probably the most popular English symphony in its first year rated by the number of performances, rivalled only by Vaughan Williams’s Sixth in its first year. There is a strong German connection given Elgar was popular in his early maturity in that country thanks to Hans Richter (who conducted the premiere of Elgar’s First in Manchester 100 years ago) and Richard Strauss, among others.
This concert’s first half was well-nigh-impeccable in all respects with a much more problematic second half, the Elgar!
The overture to Rossini’s final opera, “William Tell”, began in exquisite mood with the five solo cellos rising out of the silence. Balance throughout was well considered and the final gallop brought much merriment.
With that the Orchestra disappeared for five minutes to be replaced by a quarter-size ensemble for the Haydn. This was joy personified – what style from soloist and players; Haydn would have been delighted.
Would Elgar have so enjoyed this performance of his First Symphony? The composer’s recording of it allows for a free pulse throughout. Composers’ ways with their music often seem wilful to ordinary mortals. Roger Norrington has this ability in spades. He grew up with Early Music, often choral, and only in the last twenty or so years has he emerged as an outstandingly contentious conductor of Romantic music. He allows no vibrato on the strings and reserves a right to vary his beat to mood rather than the demands of the score.
Add a degree of extreme flexibility (bordering at times on wilfulness) in his choice of tempo relationships and we got a performance of Elgar’s First Symphony that bordered on parody. Elgar was not a natural symphonist. This first-published attempt tries too hard. It begins with a fine, drawn-out theme. Constant Lambert wrote that the only thing a composer can do with a good tune is to repeat it. Elgar repeats it frequently and returns it in the finale. What he cannot do is to develop its constituent parts in a coherent, organically conceived symphonic framework.
Hence the episodic style of the first movement plays into the hands of such a free interpretation as we heard from Norrington. But problems arise when expression tightens and makes more demands in the noble slow movement. Introduced at an extremely slow pace, this was a prosaic and caused by Norrington’s refusal to allow any sentiment to intrude. It was beautifully played but it lacked humanity. The finale, like the first movement, was malleably conducted with a very swift conclusion. This overall view was interesting and caused minds to re-think Elgar’s symphonic stature. It failed in confirming his greatness as a human being.
The encore brought the evening full-circle, the ‘March’ from Benjamin Britten’s Matinees Musicales, after Rossini, Norrington limbering up for the Last Night!