Jaunty and Regal Conducting from Norrington in Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Switzerland Stravinsky, Handel: Zurich Chamber Orchestra, Sir Roger Norrington (conductor), Zurich Tonhalle, 29.1.2012 (JR)

Stravinsky: A Soldier’s Tale
Handel: Water Music


Sir Roger Norrington Photo: Manfred Esser

Last year Sir Roger was appointed the new Chief Conductor of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, a small but dedicated and polished chamber orchestra. He has committed to conduct just a few concerts in Zurich each season. Now in his seventies, Norrington says that work is the best thing at his stage of life, as long as there’s not too much of it. And it must clearly be fun.

The orchestra has a loyal following in Zurich so it was sad to see so many empty seats. Word of Sir Roger’s most enjoyable concerts still needs to spread.

Stravinsky invented a new jazzy style, pared down to essentials in terms of melody, rhythm and instrumentation for his work The Soldier’s Tale, composed in 1918. It is scored for just seven instruments: clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, violin, double bass and percussion. Some concert versions also feature speaking parts, those of the Devil, the Soldier, a Princess and an unseen Reader. Norrington gave us the concert suite for the seven instruments without voices.

Stravinsky had become acquainted with jazz through scores that his friend Ernest Ansermet had brought from America. In this piece he uses tango rhythms, marches, a waltz and a chorale to achieve his own idiosyncratic effects. I thought I heard advance fragments of The Rite of Spring and Pulcinella at various times in the piece. The violinist has the limelight in this jaunty, acerbic and quirky work and Willi Zimmermann duly stole the show with some virtuoso double-stopping. Credit however also must go to the excellent clarinettist. The Devil’s Dance was frantic and the final Grand Chorale witty. The piece is not often heard and deserves outings.

Norrington clearly enjoyed the piece, not ever an easy one in which to keep time (at one point he wittily pretended to wipe sweat off his brow), and brought the piece to an end with a characteristic flourish, turning to the audience as he did so, followed by a salute.

Then, after the interval, on to Handel and the Water Music. We were reminded in a pre-concert talk (by a Major Domo in period costume) that this music – now considered most British – was, of course, written by a German for a German – King George could hardly speak English!

The Water Music is a loose selection of overtures, fanfares, dances and instrumental airs. Sir Roger addressed the audience before the work, in good German, describing the music as child-friendly and explaining that he had first heard the music when he was 7, playing some of it on his recorder, then recorded it many years later in historically accurate mode (of course) and was returning to it in later life. He seemed a mite sad that his new orchestra was not using period instruments: so was I.

Norrington’s conducting was at all times regal even if, now having to sit to conduct longer pieces, some bounce and sprightliness went missing. His tempi were however measured and judicious throughout; the music entertained, whether furious and punchy or stately and elegant. The audience were then invited to meet the orchestra and conductor after the performance, over a glass of wine, generously donated by the orchestra.

John Rhodes