Typically Provocate Concert by Sir Roger Norrington and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Carnegie Hall

Sir Roger Norrington served as music director of the Orchestra of St. Luke's for a few years in the early 1990s, and makes regular return visits.  Last night at Carnegie Hall, he led them in a concert of the "Holy Trinity" of the first Viennese School of composers: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.  Despite the relative familiarity of the concert, it was, as usual with Sir Roger, an occasion for surprise and discovery.

They began with Josef Haydn's Symphony No. 39 in G Minor.  This is relatively early Haydn, despite the seemingly high number, since once he got going on writing symphonies, he just churned them out and eventually produced more than 100 by the 1790s. This symphony is generally dated to the late 1760s, when the composer was in his thirties, and had not yet perfected the distinctive melodic gifts that have resulted in his last dozen or so symphonies becoming part of the central repertory of Viennese orchestral classics.  In these earlier symphonies, the rhythmic vigor and lyrical grace are there, but the themes are not yet indelibly memorable. 

Norrington led an invigorating performance, and his unusual disposition of the orchestra made for some interesting balances and contrasts. He had first violins and celli sitting to the audience's left, with the two oboes standing behind them next to two double-basses, horns were arrayed along the back, with violas and second violins to the audience's right and two double basses with them. Thus the bottom bass line was conveyed stereophically, as it were, and the oboes sounded from the left instead of the central location in a typical orchestra set-up.  This symphony is scored without timpani.

If this was unusual, the set-up for Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Concerto in C, Op. 15, was even more unusual.  The piano was placed at the center of the stage, keyboard facing the audience, lid removed, so piano soloist Jeremy Denk was seated with his back to the audience.  To Denk's left were sitting the first violins and celli, and standing behind them to the left were the flute and oboes and two double basses.  Horns and trumpets were arrayed across the back, with timpani to their right.  To the piano's immediate right were the violas and second violins, and standing behind them were the clarinets and bassoons, with the other two double basses.  At the other end of the piano, facing Denk and the audience, was Sir Roger, who turned about to give gestures to the various sections at appropriate times.  Thus, he was conducting from the midst of the group, rather then standing in front.

The program book said nothing at all about this totally unorthodox set-up, which was a bit disappointing.  After all, Norrington is one of the pioneers of the movement to introduce historically informed practice into the performance of 18th and 19th century music, and it would be interesting to know whether there is some historical documentation that would justify this set-up, and what his rationale was for adopting it.  This positioning certainly obviates the awkwardness of the usual set-up where the conductor is standing with his/her back to the piano soloist and has to turn sharply to make eye contact from time to time.  Here eye contact could be maintained, and the conductor felt free to take his seat for the lengthy piano cadenza in the first movement.

Sometimes one encounters performances of this concerto where the soloist is conducting from the keyboard, and in such performances it is customary to position the piano just like this with the lid removed, so that the entire orchestra can see the soloist, who can maintain eye contact with them. (Leonard Berstein used to do the concerto this way.)  Interjecting a conductor at the other end of the piano is the novel touch, but it is quite odd — even a bit unnerving, perhaps — for the conductor to be facing the audience and leading from the middle.  Perhaps, however, this makes a very functional compromise between the pianist conducting with his or her facial expressions and glances while hands are engaged at the keyboard, and having an actual conduct who is "supplementing" the soloist…  Raising interesting questions about who was in charge of which aspect of this performance.

Regardless of the odd set-up, the proof is in the performance, and this was a superb performance, albeit not what one might have expected based on stereotypes about historically-informed performance of late 18th century music.  This concerto was a product of the 1790s, when the 20-something Beethoven was still developing his distinctive voice and his music was heavily influenced by Haydn and Mozart, the reigning deities of Viennese music when Beethoven entered the scene after childhood in his natal city of Bonn.  One would expect thus a rather "classical" approach, but Denk's approach to the piano part struck me as very individualistic and not confined to any kind of stereotypical "classical" straightjacket. That is, there was considerable flexibility of tempo, rubato, creativity in phrasing and bringing out "inner voices" — in effect, a performance style that might fit comfortably with how this concerto would have been played by the great early-20th century Romantic virtuosi, had they deigned to play it!  (Prior to the middle of the 20th century, Beethoven's first two piano concerti did not get much concert exposure, as pianists preferred, if they played Beethoven at all, to concentrate on the more mature and romantic last three concerti.)  

Norrington's approach also had the same sort of freedom, albeit with aspects of early movement performance style as well.  One of those for which he is especially known is asking the string players to restrain their tendency to use vibrato on every sustained note – the so-called "continuous vibrato" which became the fashion in orchestral playing early in the 20th century.  Vibrato gives the sound increased warmth and richness and, when used by a body of string players, creates a "thicker", more lush sound.  When a body of string players eschews continuous vibrato, using the device only occasionally for emphasis or a contrast of sound, the sound will be more transparent and focused.  From my front row balcony seat, armed with my opera glasses, it appeared that most of the string players were complying with Norrington's practice — although a few seemed to have difficulty adhering to it, most prominently St. Luke's excellent principal cellist, Myron Lutzke, one of my favorites in that ensemble, whose left hand was shaking away pretty freely throughout the Beethoven in contrast to the other three cellists who seemed to be refraining from vibrato.  (He seemed to be more conscious about avoiding continuous vibrato during the Mozart symphony, although there were still notable "lapses."  For a mid-20th century trained string player, vibrato on sustained notes is like a reflex action, after all.)

Anyway, back to the overall performance:  Norrington's first movement was brisk but not unbending, as noted above.  There was plenty of rubato and more dynamic variation and contrast than is specifically noted in the score.  (Composers at that time tended to produce scores that look very bare-boned by contrast to a Brahms or Bruckner or Mahler score, leaving it up to the performers to exercise their musical judgement about accents, crescendi, rubato, etc.)  The second movement flowed ahead more swiftly than today's norm, but the finale seemed rather moderate in tempo compared to some I've heard.  Any attempt to pigeonhole Norrington in terms of tempi would be inaccurate, I think, because although he frequently takes "slow movements" at faster tempi than customary, his finales are sometimes slower than customary.  And, of course, in a concerto the tempi will be established jointly by the conductor and the soloist, so Denk would have something to say about the tempi here.  Sometimes there are real disagreements, and how they are worked out… is anybody's guess. 

(Everybody's favorite example of this is the time Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould collaborated on Brahms's First Piano Concerto, and Bernstein made a little speech from the stage before the performance, disclaiming responsibility for the tempo choices. The resulting performance was much slower than the norm for performances of that concerto at the time (early 1960s) … to the extent that the NY Times review of the concert by Harold Schoenberg speculated that Gould's technique wasn't good enough to play the concerto at the customary tempi.  The real oddity of this little "scandal" was that when the Philharmonic went back to their archives and reissued the broadcast performance decades later, the tempi didn't sound strange at all, because performance tempi in general had slowed down so much in the interim that the performance sounded very mainstream.  Compare it to Bernstein's later commercial recording of the concerto with Zimerman, which I recall as being even slower in some places.  The tempi that Bernstein had publicly disavowed had become his own tempi within fewer than two decades.)

Finally, after intermission we had Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Symphony No. 39 in Eb, K. 543, where Norrington again varied the orchestral set-up.  This time the flute and clarinets were standing behind the first violins, while the bassoons were standing behind the second violins, with brass arrayed across the back, and again the double basses divided on opposite sides of the orchestra. 

Norrington's tempo choices were again different from today's norm.  The Adagio introduction of the first movement was on the fast side compared to most recordings I've heard, but then the Allegro seemed quite moderate in pace – almost jarringly so at the transition from the Adagio – but on reflection I suspect that the two tempi were related, and the rhythmic vigor of execution once the contrasting theme entered eliminated any complaint  about momentum.  The ensuing Andante con moto seemed to emphasize the "con moto," as it took a rather brisk walking pace, almost startlingly so if one is familiar with the "normal" tempi of today (such as what one would normally hear from the major symphony orchestras when they play this repertory).  But then the Menuetto and trio was quite stately and elegant, not at all rushed, and there was even time for St. Luke's terrific principal clarinet, Jon Manasse, to add some ornamentation in his solos in the trio section. (I enjoyed his sly little smile at the flute player after each of those ornamental turns!)  The tempo for the Allegro finale was, again as in the Beethoven, rather moderate by comparison to other performances I've heard.  But it never seemed slow, because of the springing rhythms and energetic, vibrato-less playing of the strings.  Norrington also seemed to encourage timpani and brass to be more assertive than one usually hears in this repertory, giving a brash, sometimes even violent, edge to the music in the outer movements.

So, it is possible to give a provocative concert made up entirely of mid-to-late 18th century music.  The result is that everything comes up fresh with new perspectives.  One need not anticipate a Norrington concert by thinking "Oh, no, not another run through the Mozart 39," because it will be unlike any other Mozart 39 you've ever heard.  And, of course, there will undoubtly be people who are hearing Mozart 39 for the first time, anyway.  I certain enjoyed the evening, and look forward to return visits by Norrington, whose work is always interesting, regardless whether you agree with what he is doing in a particular piece.

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