First up was Beethoven’s The Creatures of Prometheus, the ballet overture which starts out slowly, but swells in short order to include florid variations on a simple theme, underscoring them with evenly paced, if predictable beats. The Romantics often saw Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods to give it to mankind, as a symbol of freedom, a champion against tyranny, and a metaphor for the artist taking the ‘fire’ of creative inspiration from heaven. The piece was briefly introduced as a tribute to the victims of last weekend's Paris attack. And while its light and coloristic effects might never appear in Beethoven’s more dramatic overtures, that attribute is just what made the work so welcome; as much a relief from the horror of events as a way to honour its victims.

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

Two things about the short piece struck me as highly peculiar. Firstly, the orchestra was seated in almost a circle around the totem-like piano, centre, whose keys faced the audience. It was a concerto set I had never seen before at the Tonhalle, and the visual made the stage seem somewhat impenetrable. With the soloist still in the wings, Sir Roger was to use the piano as a prop while he conducted this Prometheus. But he did so with his right hand only, such that I questioned whether his left arm was even usable. While it was and that proved wrong, many of the players’ being turned half-away from the audience was unsettling, especially since the promise of the next piece was the Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor, played by French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and I thought I’d be damned if I had to see him only from the back. We never did see Aimard’s face as he played. Oddly, though, with the keys facing us, we had an unprecedented view of the pianist’s hands scuttling over the keys, his playing so precise that I was reminded the fine embroidery machines of the Swiss textile industry.

In the Allegro con brio, he swept us from the flurry of notes at warp speed to the delicate magic of something almost Mozartian. Rather than one Romantic sweep, the tempo was more slowly paced, every single note audible. The orchestra picked up from the solo piano at the start of the Largo seamlessly, while in the Rondo, the standing woodwind players swayed and pumped into their knees almost with the fervour of a small klezmer band. Aimard’s convention is to remove his instrument’s lid to expand its sound, and the ease with which he played − entirely relaxed shoulders, occasional hand through the hair − was like the soft casual one might hear at an uptown piano bar. But his musicality simply amazed, and the orchestra − the solo flute, particularly compelling – ‘danced’ with him in his humble brilliance.

Sometimes standing, sometime seated, Sir Roger jollied the crowd of musicians through their evening’s demanding task. His hands as relaxed as limp lilies, one might wonder if they’d have the strength to hold a teacup, let alone conduct an orchestra – at least until seeing how easily the players responded to his cues.

After the interval, he straddled his chair on the podium to explain that Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, in F major was “a completely manic piece”, marked in 1812 by the supreme frustration and anger the composer’s encroaching deafness was causing him. We could, he went on, expect the first and fourth movements to be “incredibly wild” and “untamed, even to the point of a little mad”. As the Allegro vivace began, he sometimes sat back on his chair periodically to enjoy the rambunctious gallop himself, seeming to literally ‘swim’ − his long arms in a crawl − through several measures of the second movement.

In the Minuetto, the sensation imparted was like on a wave, although the horns admittedly had a little trouble with their coordination at one point. The final Allegro vivace, was a complex fabric of sounds and impulses so vital and full of punch that one felt Beethoven himself had come back to life. Sir Roger seemed to love toying with the audience, but his supremely vibrant and original interpretation of the familiar work showed him an absolute master of his trade. It all seemed so easy for him, even while the players’ whirled like dervishes around him. Not surprisingly, after the very last chord and before the applause, he turned to the audience with a gesture straight out of Vaudeville − raised eyebrows, wide open arms, broadest of smiles, as if to say, “See? What did I tell you?”