United Kingdom Prom 17 – Berlioz, Beethoven, Brahms: Robert Levin (piano), Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra / Sir Roger Norrington (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 28.9.2016. (GD)
Berlioz : Beatrice and Benedict Overture
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58
Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
In one sense this was an old-fashioned concert in its programming – overture, concerto, ending with a grand symphony. But there was nothing old-fashioned on the level of performance and interpretation. Norrington is a seasoned Berlioz conductor and he turned in a sparkling and rhythmically agile performance of the overture to Berlioz’s last opera, based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
Levin did not disappoint in the Beethoven concerto, going from strength to strength in the first movement exposition with its ornamental flourishes echoed in the orchestra. Particularly impressive was the way in which both soloist and conductor negotiated the B major excursions of the first movement development section. All the way through the first movement there was an impressive sense of dialogue between soloist and conductor. This was made even more resonant in the development section proper, beginning with a D major, where the quite dramatic contrasts are partly resolved in the distant key of C sharp minor. Rather than playing the more favoured two cadenzas Beethoven composed Levin played his own quite lengthy cadenzas. I prefer the Beethoven cadenzas, but Levin’s improvisations corresponded thematically to the music’s basic tone-scapes. His quasi ‘arpeggio’ flourish, before the opening piano solo, sounded effective tonight, although I would imagine they could sound tiresome on repeated hearings.
In the wonderful ‘Andante con moto’ Norrington emphasised the con moto. Again there was an impressive dialogue between soloist and conductor with Levin’s wonderfully subtle Orphic responses to the stern declamations of the strings in their low registers. His transition into the coda was a model of structural awareness where Beethoven has magically metamorphosed the initial E minor into an array of haunting and distant tonalities. My only criticism was a certain lack of rugged thrust in the opening recitative-like Orphic string phrases, a certain trenchant stoicism which Klemperer used to play with such power. But, as if in compensation, Norrington perfectly balanced that moment of ‘supreme darkness’ (Tovey) at the end of the movement with ‘sotto voce’ basses intoning the Orphic theme over a sustained and haunting string phrase. The ‘Rondo vivace’ was rhtythmically sharp with the G major, C major juxtapositions skillfully managed. Overall this was a fine performance with Levin in excellent form.
As would be expected Norrington deployed antiphonal violins throughout. In the concerto he came down from the podium facing Levin whose back was to the empty podium, and he was seated with the cellos, violas and basses (four) encircling them. To my amazement Norrington actually encouraged the onrush of applause after the first movement of the Beethoven, and also after the second movement of the Brahms. I am sure he did this with the best of intentions, as an endearing gesture to the audience, and as part of his commitment to ‘authenticity’. But if this was taken to its historical/logical conclusion would it not validate audiences eating drinking, chattering throughout performance, or the revival, in opera performance, of escorts (courtesans) reserving boxes in which to entertain their clients? Something Toscanini was so vilified for banning the practice at Milan’s La Scala.
As an encore Levin played a beguiling rendition of the Intermezzo from Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26
Norrington’s rendition of Brahms’ First Symphony was certainly not without its merits. He obtained a welcomed mediation between instrumental balance and lucidity of tone. The opening un poco sostenuto sounded very ‘sustained’ with not a note of rigidity, indeed the relentless timpani figure was inflected with leaps of crescendo and de-crescendo, not in the score, but adding to the symphonic drama. The aforementioned clarity certainly came off in the Allegro, with exposition repeat, which can sometimes sound turgid and dull. The difficult C minor cross-rhythms in the strings were absolutely clear in their execution with all the essential dramatic thrust. In fact, I have only heard this cross-rhythm passage played with more dramatic intensity by Arturo Toscanini in the early 50s. Norrington was masterful especially in those crucial moments of tonal/instrumental contrast, as in the first section of the development where the tone darkens from C flat to E flat minor. In this particular passage a plaintive oboe figure leads to a dialogue in the woodwind and mysterious, magisterial cloud-like chords on muted pp trumpets, subtended by a pp, but ominous timpani figure. This sequence acts as the preparation for the recapitulation of the first allegro subject, now furiously ablaze in tutti C minor, based on a relentless four-figure rhythm secured in the bass and drums; all this was traversed with a compelling sense of symphonic structure and drama. In the coda, for Tovey a ‘song of sorrow’, Norrington was most careful in matters of dynamics, giving the lamenting rhythmic figure in drums and basses, from the movements introduction, a clarity not always heard.
The Andante sostenuto came off splendidly in terms of tone and phrasing. Norrington maintaining a real ‘sostenuto’ throughout. Here Norrington’s famous refusal of ‘vibrato’ added a lucidity and textual clarity rarely heard. In fact such ‘tonal purity’ corresponded to the soundscape Brahms would have expected! In the coda the florid passages for solo violin were superbly balanced and played, never sounding sentimental as is often the case. And again Norrington gradated the throbbing pp figure in basses and timpani to perfection. The Allegretto grazioso was again a model of lucidity and clarity. And the dark drama of the C minor introduction to the finale sounded suitably brooding with the chorale theme on woodwind and lower brass well integrated. The wonderful transition to the light of C major, with the glorious horn melody was resplendent, without being in any way dragged out or underlined.
The finale went from strength to strength, with every orchestral detail audible. And the great presto coda, with its triumphant peroration of themes and the glorious tutti statement of the choral theme – ‘the most solemn moment in the whole symphony’ for Tovey – benefited by being played in tempo and not ponderously drawn out as it often is. Indeed the whole coda never sounded ‘hacked on’, as is often the case. With Norrington it all evolved naturally from the preceding symphonic structure. Especial mention must be made regarding the superb playing of the Stuttgart orchestra, sounding the full equal of the Berlin Philharmonic or the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. To achieve such orchestral clarity in the cavernous acoustic of the Albert Hall is indeed ‘something’! As an encore Norrington gave us a humorously inflected performance of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor.
Then Natalie Chee, the orchestras ‘concert-master, gave a moving speech to the effect that from September the orchestra will be merged with SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg. This will inevitably mean the end of the Stuttgart Orchestra (founded in 1945), and the loss of employment for many of the musicians, also a loss for the countless audiences who have benefitted enormously from this superb orchestra. No doubt another casualty of so called ‘Austerity’ and ‘Banker occupation’! Natalie Chee informed us that tonight’s Prom concert will be their very last. And to consolidate this sad event Norrington played a quite straightforward but powerful rendition of ‘Nimrod’, from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. I wasn’t sure that the Elgar was the best choice? It certainly pleased the Prom audience, but would not one of the beautiful entr’actes from Schubert’s Rosamunde, more intimate, more lyrical, been more resonant here?