Norrington’s Classical Equation: 2 x 39 + 1 =

United StatesUnited States  Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart: Jeremy Denk (piano), Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Sir Roger Norrington (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York, 16.2.2012 (SSM)

Haydn: Symphony No. 39 in G Minor
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15
Mozart: Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major

The series of Sturm und Drang symphonies Haydn wrote from the mid 1760s through the early 1770s are arguably his best symphonic works. One can’t overestimate the influence C.P.E. Bach had not only on Haydn but on most composers of the time. Mozart is quoted by the music critic J. F. Rochlitz as having said of C.P.E. Bach, “He is the father. We are the children.” The elements that distinguish Bach’s instrumental music – sudden changes in dynamics and tempi, unexpected modulations to distant keys, silence used as a dramatic effect and dissonances where least expected – are all hallmarks of these Haydn symphonies.

Written in 1770, Haydn’s thirty-ninth symphony falls right in the middle of this phase of his symphonic development. It’s in the same key that Mozart would later use for his two symphonic forays into this dramatic style: the G minor symphonies, twenty-five and forty. Having recently heard Haydn’s twenty-sixth symphony (the first of his Sturm and Drang series) performed on original instruments or replicas by students in the early music department at the Juilliard School of Music, I still had the rough, complex, almost raucous timbres of these instruments in my mind. The Sturm und Drang symphonies look back to the Baroque and benefit more than Haydn’s other symphonies from a historically informed approach. Although the OSL used instruments that were neither original Baroque instruments nor replicas, their playing technique gave a fine sense of the rich coloring that these symphonies offer.

Sir Roger Norrington made reference to the early music style in a number of ways. The most prominent feature was the immaculately clean, vibrato-less playing of the strings, and his unusual arrangement of the orchestral seating added to the period flavor. While the instrumental layout changed for each piece, based on the scoring, generally the orchestra partially surrounded the conductor with the wind and brass players on the outside wings, first and second violins across from each other and the violas and celli in the middle. Having the wind instrumentalists stand up when needed allowed the sounds of the oboists, flautist and clarinettists to be heard clearly over the other instruments. Both the brass and the tympani accentuated the score with a freshness and crispness not heard in more traditional performances.

Norrington was one of the early proponents of historically informed performance, and one of the first conductors to apply period playing techniques to composers as late as Bruckner. His insistence on playing by the metronome markings, even in the metronome’s earliest use by Beethoven, was controversial, but now it is common practice to play at these accelerated tempi. Surprisingly then, I found the third movement minuet slower than it should have been, dulling the contrast between it and the previous movement. This held true for the trio section of the minuet as well, which was missing its usually sharp distinction from the surrounding outer sections.

The change in the orchestra’s layout was even more radical for the Beethoven piano concerto. This time the circle required the string players to position themselves with their backs to the audience. The piano and pianist faced the conductor who was standing in the center of the circle, which created the appearance that the audience was the recipient of the conductor’s gestures. This also required the fallboard to be removed from the piano in order for the instrumentalists to see the conductor. These mutations generated a refreshingly well tempered, even galant reading of the score, and Jeremy Denk played effortlessly through the entire work. It was not until the cadenza that one realised the effort required from the pianist. (Having seen Denk perform The Goldberg Variations and the Ligeti Preludes in the same evening, I had no doubts about his stamina.) Never raising the piano’s voice or engaging in virtuosity by hammering the keyboard, his rendition of this cadenza made me wonder if it was even written by Beethoven, so unBeethoven-like it was in its self-effacement. The audience spontaneously broke into applause at the end of the first movement: clearly, this wasn’t a breach of protocol but a heartfelt appreciation of Denk’s rejuvenating approach to this well-known piece.

The concluding work, Mozart’s thirty-ninth symphony, has little in common with Haydn’s symphony of the same number. Here, with a much larger orchestra than for the earlier works on the program, there were some balancing problems, and one missed the richness of the strings when they competed with the winds and brass. My first impression of the orchestra was that they were so tightly knit that Norrington’s mild gesturing was barely needed, but the Mozart would have benefited from a less laid-back conducting style.

All the members of the orchestra played flawlessly, but special mention should be given to the clarinettist, Jon Manasse, who was outstanding in both the Beethoven, played from the right side of the orchestra, and the Mozart, played from the left. The brief but poignant duo in the second movement of the  Beethoven concerto had Denk turning his head in deference to the clarinet, as if the two were members of an intimate chamber group.

Stan Metzger