Sir Roger Norrington directs the RSNO in a glorious Beethoven ‘Eroica’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Debussy, Beethoven: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Sir Roger Norrington (conductor). Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 29.2.2020. (GT)

Sir Roger Norrington (c) Alberto Venzago

DebussyPrelude à l’après-midi d’un faune L 86; Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra L 73

Beethoven – Symphony No.3 in E flat major Op 55 ‘Eroica’

This was the second concert in the RSNO’s ‘Beethoven Revolution’ series, and with Sir Roger Norrington to conduct this symphony – which is often considered one of the greatest ever written – there was great expectation for a truthful interpretation.

Unusually two pieces by Claude Debussy presaged the Beethoven symphony, one among the most popular, and another written when he was finding his feet as a composer. In the opening Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune, the flute of Kathryn Bryan colourfully introduced the main theme, echoed by the oboe, with glissando from the harps of Pippa Tunnell and Mary Reid capturing a magical and evocative setting for the mood of a ‘delicious wash of vagueness’ as Leonard Bernstein wrote. The exquisitely chromatic textures and golden harmonies were enchantingly performed. This was a beautiful example of magical watercolours marvellously enacted by an orchestra on top form.

That was the piece which announced Debussy as a leading French composer, however, his Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra is somewhat experimental in the search for expression and harmony with the composer’s motifs inspired by ‘a sunset rather than a dawn’. The work gives a hint of what was to come in the stylistic elements of his mature period. With such a distinguished exponent of French music as the soloist, we could not have hoped for a better advocate in portraying this symphonically written piece for piano and orchestra. The opening Andante ma non troppo witnessed amazing virtuosity from Adrian Wilson on the oboe, dulcet tones from Nicholas Carpenter’s clarinet and Martin Murphy on the horn, and violins that were rather poignant in their eloquent phrasing. The piano entered irregularly with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet picking out the high notes on the keyboard, and with brief flashes of colour giving a southern warmth, the harmonies throughout the orchestra seemed more rhapsodic like a myriad of colours with scarcely any darkness. In the second movement: Lento e molto espressivo, here Debussy gave a significant role to the flute in solo passages and again Kathryn Bryan introduced a rather prosaic idea in a dream-like sequence, reinforced by splendid harmonies on the brass. Without a break – the finale Allegro molto opened resplendently on the horns and woodwind, and with occasional glorious passages from the piano, the piece closed on an invigorating note. Perhaps without the glorious fragrances, and the magic harmony of his later works, this was an enjoyable piece from Debussy’s early years. Bavouzet’s exquisite playing of Debussy’s L’isle Joyeuse, as his encore, was itself worth the ticket price alone.

However, what we heard after the interval will encourage many to rush to take out new subscriptions when the 2020-21 RSNO concert programme is launched this week. The level of performance heard in this concert shows that the orchestra has reached a new high. For Beethoven’s Third Symphony, ‘Eroica’, Roger Norrington introduced a completely different seating arrangement with the four double-basses at the back, and all the wind instruments surrounding the strings, and on their feet. As the conductor explained, this was as it was done in Vienna 200 years ago, whilst the idea of the standing wind players was his own. In his introduction Norrington spoke at length about his study into the period performance of Beethoven’s music, and about his early days playing his symphonies, and what motivated the historic recordings by his London Classical Players in the 1980s. Perhaps, it would have been more ‘historical’ if gut strings had been used, and there had been natural brass instruments. However, what was extraordinary was the accuracy in keeping to Beethoven’s written tempo markings, and often it seemed as if we were hearing this like a newly written symphony and not a familiar one.

Norrington has, of course, performed Beethoven, Mozart, and Schumann symphonies before with this orchestra however, on this occasion, his conducting was even more refreshing than before. Perhaps like a good wine, Norrington in his 86th year has matured even more. The momentous opening Allegro con brio was graceful and powerful in the imagery of heroics and fortitude – sounding fresh – with the violent and unforgiving dissonances still shocking as much as they must have at the first performance. With the strings surrounding the conductor, the unanimity of the playing was striking. Notably, the horn of Martin Murphy reprised the first motif over the mysterious theme on the strings, before the opening section was repeated brilliantly.

In the Marcia funebre: Allegro assai, it was already clear that this was the best playing that I have heard by this orchestra in a Beethoven symphony. There was a powerful clarity to the different groups; cellos, basses, violas and the woodwind! The standard was simply world-class at times, almost unrecognisable from the last time they played the ‘Eroica’ here. This fluency and sobriety continued into the Scherzo with outstanding detail and lucidity, and there was particularly superlative playing from the flutes and oboes, clarinets and bassoons. The Trio was magnificently proclaimed by the three horns, and with the return of the Scherzo, the horns and timpani closed out the movement with some hints of menace.

In the Finale, Allegro molto, the dynamic structure was brilliant with the strings playing breathtakingly fast at times and one wanted this to continue all night. The unravelling of the variations from The Creatures of Prometheus was spectacularly performed and all the while Norrington – with turns of the wrists – wielded tremendously dynamic transitions of momentum in the swiftly arriving culmination. Fittingly – as if it could be no different – the final appearance of the theme came with pace, in triumph, with great energy on trumpets and horns, leading to the magnificently heroic coda. Of course, one would not expect the arrangement of the orchestra to be a regular occurrence, but for this evening – and with such a conductor – it worked perfectly. One almost wanted to hear it all over again – as it was such a terrific performance!

Gregor Tassie


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