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S & H Concert Review

Beethoven Choral Symphony, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Roger Norrington,
Théàtre du Châtelet, Paris, December 8, 2001 (FC)


It is always a surprise to see the conducting style of Roger Norrington. He often indulges in those broad circular gestures that they tell you not to use in conducting school. As one of the originators of the "historically informed" school of conductors, with an emphasis on a precise beat, he should be the last one to use a tool that does not guarantee precision. Fortunately the London Philharmonic is skilled enough to provide all the precision he requires, no matter what signals are given. The exception this evening being, oddly, the brass section, which, throughout the concert had its own concept of rhythmical pulse and even intonation which was often at variance with that held by Sir Roger.

It was otherwise a splendid evening of the last two symphonies of Bonn's most famous favorite son. Norrington's precision, attention to detail and, in the symphony in F, wit were all in evidence. His tempo in the final movement of the Eighth, comprising the first part of the program, left some members of the orchestra scrambling a bit. There was also a curious tempo used in the "military band" section of the final movement of the Ninth - I couldn't help imagining soldiers trying to march to that one. Quibbles aside, it was Beethoven played with force and directness and makes a strong argument that stripping away all the layers of "interpretation" - like layers of paint on old woodwork - can cause the listener to see the work afresh.

For the Choral Symphony, the well-rehearsed Choir of Radio France joined the orchestra, and sang with strength and impressive accuracy. The soloists were soprano Christine Brewer, mezzo Carolin Masur, tenor Stuart Neill and bass Matti Salminen. Salminen, the veteran of this otherwise fine group, was the standout and contributed stirring moments to the finale.

The Théàtre du Châtelet was a rubato, retardando, and legato-free zone this night. Some in the audience might miss the customary shaping of phrases in their recordings of these symphonies by Bruno Walter or Furtwängler. Some might find the "Freude, schöner Götterfunken" with a bit of a tick-tock cadence. I can still remember the shock - there is no other word for it - when first hearing the Norrington Ninth recording many years ago. It seemed "sanitised" almost beyond recognition, lifeless and metronomic. Now I find much to like in the clear musicality of Norrington and always look forward to the insight, details and, yes, pleasure he always delivers. Maybe the conductor has changed. Maybe I have.

Frank Cadenhead

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