Norrington and RSNO Make the Case for Historically Informed Performances on Modern Instruments

22/02/2019

Schumann, Mozart: Francesca Dego (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Sir Roger Norrington (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 22.2.2019. (SRT)

Sir Roger Norrington (c) Manfred Esser

Schumann – Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4

Mozart – Violin Concerto No.4

I have written elsewhere in these pages that I have spent much of my musical life as a Roger Norrington sceptic, but his work with the RSNO has completely won me over. They play with nineteenth-century style when he conducts them, but they never sound like a ‘period’ band, always like themselves. In fact, their collaborations bring out the best in both orchestra and conductor, giving a great example of how good historically informed performances can sound on modern instruments.

This concert saw the end of a miniature cycle in which Norrington has done all four Schumann symphonies with the RSNO over two seasons. It was in Schumann that I first heard him conduct them several seasons ago, and what made all these performances special was how considerately Norrington has thought through every aspect of the performance’s architecture. That starts with the number of players – much smaller than usual: only eight first violins, for example – but also goes down to their position on the stage, with antiphonal violins and double basses elevated in the centre. That doesn’t matter as much for some composers, but it makes the proportions of Schumann’s music make perfect sense, and helps to hammer another nail into the coffin of the idea that Schumann was a bad orchestrator. No: our age has just been bad at figuring out how well he did it.

Combine all that with minimal vibrato – strings sounding wiry but not thin, agile but not emaciated – and you get a sound world that is pretty much bespoke for Schumann. Marry that with Norrington’s architectural vision of these symphonies and you get something rather special. The Fourth Symphony (in its revised version) had a pretty impressive sense of growth to it. The energy of the first movement’s Allegro bounded out of a brooding introduction and was interrupted only by the turbulence with which the finale’s theme tries to make itself heard in the development. Likewise, the transition into the last movement was beautifully judged, with a sense of the clouds clearing to let the sun burst through.

That was true in the Rhenish symphony too, with a beautifully balanced opening that pressed forward without sounding brash. However, it was in the cavernous fourth movement that the sound really came into its own, with trombones and horns enriching one another from opposite sides of the stage as the double basses droned in the middle. This gave the music a sense of resonant awe, with an almost gothic feel to the tense final chords; but listening to the bounce of the last movement made me wonder how many symphonic finales can really stand up to it in terms of life affirming delight.

That sound world was every bit as bespoke for Mozart, with the orchestra reduced to sub-chamber size, giving youthful flexibility to the Fourth Violin Concerto. It took me a while to warm to the playing of Francesca Dego, however. She showed a lot of attention to detail but, in the rather fussy first movement, this broke up the musical line quite disruptively, sometimes pushing forwards and sometimes holding back to no great effect. She was much better in the lyrical slow movement and, even more so, in the finale where, for the first time, I got the impression that the violin was leading the performance. I especially liked the way she took possession of the quirky village band episode; and that attention to detail worked very much in her favour for the cheeky Paganini Caprice that she played for her encore.

Simon Thompson

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