“Ta-daaaaaa!” There’s a wonderful publicity photograph of Sir Roger Norrington, holding his hands aloft as if a magician unveiling a new trick. The two fortissimo Ds punched out by the entire orchestra at the start of Beethoven’s Second Symphony are the aural equivalent: “Listen to this!” In the 1980s, Norrington was at the forefront of applying historical performance practice to music from the Classical and Romantic eras on instruments of the period, performances and recordings that shocked the musical world and made even modern instrument orchestras re-evaluate the way they played composers like Beethoven.

Sir Roger Norrington © Manfred Esser
Sir Roger Norrington
© Manfred Esser

Over three decades on, Norrington returned to the Queen Elizabeth Hall, where many of those revelations were first heard, to conduct a pair of Beethoven symphonies as part of the Southbank’s anniversary salvo. At 85, he moves a little more gingerly, his hands arthritic, but the twinkle in the eye is still there. “Are you sitting comfortably?” he quipped, settling himself into a swivel chair and addressing the audience. “I am.” The band he founded in 1978, the London Classical Players, was dissolved in the late 90s when Norrington was battling cancer, but many of those players continued in the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, on duty here.

Duty may well be the right word, because there was something rather dutiful about the OAE’s performance of the Second. Norrington was having a ball, leaning back in his chair, legs raised, wrists wafting, face beaming... like a rakish, slimline Falstaff revelling in a robust, fine wine. But the orchestra didn’t entirely share the love, looking as if they were tolerating an eccentric uncle.

These days, we’re used to the sound of period instrument Beethoven – leaner strings, fruity wind tuning, a lack of vibrato, keeping up with the composer’s metronome markings – so perhaps the performance lacked an element of shock. The Scherzo felt restrained, and even the Allegro molto finale requiring a touch more bustling energy.

The Eroica was a different matter entirely. The opening chords – described as “gunshots” by timpanist Adrian Bending in a wonderful thank you note given to audience members after the concert – ignited the performance, which bristled with revolutionary fire. Bending rattled off the timpani part with gusto and I loved Jane Gower’s waspish bassoon, buzzing its caustic commentary. Norrington had his wind players split across the platform, standing, flutes, oboes and horns to the left, trumpets, bassoons and clarinets to the right, wrapped around the string band. 

The Marcia funebre was purposeful and clipped until the mighty eruption at its core, and the quicksilver Scherzo had incredible lightness of touch. The fact that the natural horns struggled valiantly to maintain tuning in the Trio section only heightened the high-risk element of period instrument performance. They whooped in unruly fashion in the finale, though, a helter-skelter scramble full of fun. Revolutionary Beethoven? Indeed. Norrington’s still pretty revolutionary too.