‘You are invited to join us in the music-making’, Sir Roger Norrington told the audience before the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment launched Beethoven’s Symphony No.2 in D Major. Norrington was keen to remind us that we are as much a part of the show as he and the band, calling for applause and shooting mischievous glances out into the hall.
The historical performance practices that he and his colleagues in the London Classical Players pioneered over thirty years ago may have passed into shared understanding for public and performers alike, but Norrington’s performance that night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall was full of warmth and mercurial wit that felt like putting a new coat of paint on those famous 1989 recordings.
His reading of the second symphony was fierce and Promethean: the break with Haydn and Mozart is seen not just in the lopsided accents of the antiphonal scherzo but also its ethos and mood. An unsurprisingly brisk tempo for the second movement – Norrington is assiduous in observing the ‘erroneous’ metronome markings – blunts the contrast between it and the following scherzo, but does transmit Beethoven’s hyperactivity. Stereo-effect woodwinds underline the vivacity of the part-writing, even if their positioning meant some sound was lost: a particular pity given Sarah Thurlow’s marvellous clarinet playing in the slow movement and the OAE’s over-ripe bassoons.
The Eroica symphony sounded box-fresh. Moments of textural insight and intelligent sculpting abounded, with instances of daring quiet making the audience wait for the moments of breakout excitement, launched with explosive salvos from Adrian Bending’s timpani. The monumental dissonances that pile up in the climax of first movement’s development positively gleamed with revolutionary energy and terror, burnished with the OAE’s natural trumpets. The great funeral march had a rawness that stripped away accreted layers of pomposity or gloomy grandeur; its central fugue, with its pained horn calls and cascades of dissonant string suspensions, was like ripping off a plaster.
Norrington’s scherzo was a high-wire act, not least in the daredevil horn trio. Temperamental instruments added to the impression that this is music that has lost none of its edge, even if its energies were unfocused at the outset. The final movement delivered a hugely characterful version of Beethoven’s theme. The dramatic shape of the variations that followed was beautifully crafted, each episode wearing a distinctive musical costume. Norrington’s breathless speeds challenged the flautist to feats of virtuosity, but ensured that sight of the whole was never lost.
Much of this was lithe, discreet, even a little coy. Norrington is a teasing revolutionary in this music. But there was a surprising beefiness to the sound throughout: equal numbers of ‘cellos and double basses gave the lower end heft and richness; Eroica’s three horns had an almost Wagnerian grandeur in the exultant final bars. The OAE strings in full flight were characteristically volcanic. Norrington’s laissez faire conducting paid dividends in making this music feel spontaneous, organic, even collaborative, but his bravura refusal to fastidiously beat every bar meant for a few fumbles in the ensemble, particularly in the Trio of the Eroica’s scherzo.
Roger Norrington is 85. He performed these symphonies with the London Classical Players in that same hall before this reviewer was born. At any age, conducting music of this eloquence and intensity from something as banal as a swivelling office chair would be unbelievable if you hadn’t seen it done yourself. Who knew Beethoven’s orchestral sweeps and surprises could be channelled through such furniture? After the first movement of the second symphony Norrington whirled around to the throng. He cocked his head and nodded: ‘Pretty good’. He has not lost the art of understatement.