Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Prom 7: Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra/Roger Norrington (RAH)

There are fancy cordon bleu dishes, exotic Eastern cooking, and then there are meat and potato dishes. The classical equivalent of meat and potatoes is overture-concerto-symphony, and that's exactly what was served up at tonight's Prom.

The thing is, meat and potatoes may not have much in the way of an exciting reputation,but sometimes you need something straightforward instead of all the fancy stuff, and the fact is that unglamourous as it may seem, a well-cooked side of beef and perfectly roasted tats is a meal that's hard to beat. And, to stretch this tortuous food metaphor a little further (don't worry, I'll drop it in a minute), the chefs of Radio Stuttgart delivered in many ways a perfectly timed roast dinner. Having said that, I have some doubts. But I'll come to those in due course.

Rossini's William Tell Overture is one of those pieces that's so famous I'm not even going to bother linking to Wikipedia about it, so famous that the prospect of hearing it fills me with almost no excitement at all. Luckily, Norrington and his band aren't as jaded as me, and a nimble performance reminded me that heck, this is really fun music. Obviously no-one these days can entirely pout the Lone Ranger out of their mind, and Norrington seemed to acknowledge as much by turning to the audience and winking when that bit started.

Jean-Guihen Queyras was the soloist in Haydn's wonderful C major Cello Concerto, and a very fine performance he gave too, the slimmed down band behind him providing able support, while Norrington hovered behind him, wisely leaving the players largely to it. This was an interpretation that seemed to point out Haydn's debt to Vivaldi, although the cadenza seemed to point forward to Beethoven.

My doubts set in in the second half. Not that the performance of Elgar's First Symphony wasn't in many ways a rewarding experience. But Norrington's advocacy of "authentic" performance practice seems to have hardened into dogma, and where he once seemed iconoclastic he now seems like a fundamentalist. It's true that players in Elgar's day tended to use less vibrato than they would now, and I'm generally all in favour of a more restrained use of it. But it's just not true that they used none at all (we do, after all, have recordings of Elgar himself conducting this work, albeit in the early '30s), and a device they would certainly have used much more liberally than modern orchestras would, which was entirely absent from the Stuttgart players' technique, is portamento. Norrington also shied away from any great rubato too, which, as can be heard in his recordings, Elgar certainly wouldn't have done. There were moments when the lean string sound brought great benefits to the piece, but others where it didn't. To call this style of performing historical/authentic is simply inaccurate, and I found these worries nagging at me throughout, which stopped me enjoying what was, I should emphasise, some very fine playing.

Another thing about Norrington's idea of performance practice involves that perennial bugbear, applause between movements. Now I'm pretty relaxed about this sort of thing on the whole: people clapped between movements in the Haydn, and it was fine as far as I'm concerned. But Norrington goes beyond asserting a right to do this into insisting on it, and in a piece like the Elgar, which is clearly conceived as one large span of music, and even ends its first three movements quietly and anticlimactically this seems to destroy the mood. If it's wrong to stop people applauding, it's equally wrong to stop people having a moment's quiet reflection after the heartfelt slow movement before the finale creeps in. Norrington's a fine, eccentric showman, and he'll undoubtedly handle the dreaded Last Night very well, but in this instance what once seemed a fresh approach seems to have ossified into willfulness.

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