Sceptic No More: Sir Roger Norrington Performs Rameau, Haydn and Brahms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rameau, Haydn, Brahms: Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Sir Roger Norrington (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 13.1.2012 (SRT)

Rameau: Suite from Les Boréades
Haydn: Symphony No. 85 La Reine
Brahms: Symphony No. 2


Roger Norrington is becoming a regular fixture north of the border and he clearly enjoys working with the RSNO, as do they with him. I’ve been unflattering about him in these pages before, but his RSNO concerts have forced me to re-evaluate my prejudices. I don’t always like Norrington’s pared-down style, but paradoxically it tends to work a lot better with a bigger orchestra. When he last conducted the Scottish Chamber Orchestra I couldn’t stand the thin scraping of the string tone and for me it sapped the music of life, but this larger orchestra, who are surely less accustomed to playing in that style, tend to suit his approach much better. Only very occasionally in the Brahms did I find his vibrato-free method unhelpful – for me it prevents the great cello second subject from taking off and robs the opening of the Adagio of some of its power – but on the whole I liked the sound he got, and his architectural approach to the music paid lots of dividends. Above all else Norrington is a thinker and, while I sometimes object to the approach he takes, you always have to respect the honesty with which he takes it. You could see that in the way he laid out the musicians with basses in the middle and, for the Rameau and Handel, the winds standing at the fringes behind the violins with the harpsichord in the centre among the strings. It worked extremely well in creating a bespoke sound for those composers, but of course it wouldn’t work for Brahms, so there he arranged a layout different again and engaged in tactical doubling of some instruments. The sound was different but fitted the symphony like a glove. There was a warmth and glow to the wind writing as the strings coasted above them and this was underpinned by a bass line that was solid and lovely, foundational without being dominant. Norrington is more traditionally associated with earlier music and his Rameau was graceful and lilting in the slower movements, if less bright-eyed than Emmanuelle Haïm’s work with the SCO the previous evening. The orchestral colour was restrained so as to allow the beautiful wind solos to shine through, and the same courtesy was paid in the Haydn symphony, pointed with grace, wit and humour. All I can say is that, for this Norrington sceptic, it worked.

Simon Thompson