Old revolutionaries, to paraphrase one of General MacArthur’s observations, never die, they just fade away. On his 84th birthday, and conducting the SWR Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart (the result of a recent merger), there was no sense of Sir Roger Norrington’s famed revolutionary colours having lost any of their startling brilliance. Back in the 1980s I well recall the astonishment with which his recorded Beethoven cycle was greeted, with attributes ranging from “revelatory” to “trailblazing”. Even earlier, at secondary school, I remember a music lesson in which we were challenged to argue which of two symphonies – Mozart’s Jupiter and Beethoven’s Eroica – created the greater sensation in the musical world.

Sir Roger Norrington © Alberto Venzago
Sir Roger Norrington
© Alberto Venzago

Norrington’s ability to recreate the mood of the revolutionary period in which this concert’s trio of works were composed was immediately evident in the orchestral layout. Making use of a slimmed-down ensemble (just four cellos and four basses), Norrington had an outer ring which wrapped itself around all the strings, the upper wind and horns on his left, the timpani, trumpets and lower wind on his right. During the C minor concerto, partnering the Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi, he himself was in the centre of the music-making, facing his soloist who had his back to the audience, as would have been the case in Beethoven’s day.

The special relationship developed with core players over many years was evident throughout, the precision and polish of the playing having been honed during the current tour (with earlier visits to Cardiff and Basingstoke). Directing all three works batonless and entirely from memory, each physical gesture from Norrington had point and purpose, with an outstretched hand, a cajoling finger, darting thrusts of an imaginary rapier, gently sawing motions from his arms or large warming embraces used to determine tempo, inject vitality and coordinate ensemble. Belying the notion that historically informed performances need be academic and joyless, his face was often wreathed in beatific smiles and at critical moments he would swing round to beam at his audience (for instance, during the carousing of the hunting-horns in the trio section of the Eroica).

With Piemontesi seated just inches away from the leader and a piano’s length from the conductor, the mood set by Norrington in the orchestral introduction, treated not only gravely but replete with some of the powerfully dramatic flourishes for which this composer is known, was ideally matched in the soloist’s first entry. As a reading it was definitely a young man’s piece, heroic and commanding when required, often exhilarating and energy-laden, and by no means short on wit. On the deficit side, the high-spiritedness came at the expense of a legato line and there was a tendency to scamper in the finale. A particular problem emerged in the first-movement cadenza, delivered as a close cousin of the Appassionata, where insufficient variation in the dynamics gave undue emphasis to the loud and rhythmically assertive solo line. More unsettling was the chosen tempo for the slow movement, which Beethoven marks Largo and which was here much more of an Andante. Indeed, the entire Sturm und Drang ethos never seemed far from Piemontesi’s mind. However, after initially scaling all the heights with revolutionary fervour there is an obvious reason why this particular composer offers us a dose of necessary balm for the weary soul before the dramatic gestures resume in the finale.

From the explosive opening chords which launch Beethoven’s Third Symphony right through to the still raging fiery furnace of the concluding Presto coda, the mind can hardly comprehend how much limitless energy this musical work – and by definition the human spirit – represents. Perhaps it takes a lifetime even to begin to do full justice to the Eroica, as Norrington did on this memorable occasion. There is many an interpreter who offers an octane-fuelled approach, with sparks flying off nearly every bar, but few have the capacity to marry that with sufficient relaxation and flexibility of pulse for such an approach not to appear unrelenting. The first contemporary critics were quick to realise that the ground had well and truly moved, among them Haydn who commented, “From this day forward, everything in music is changed”.

So many instrumental felicities in this absorbing performance vie for inclusion in this review. In the opening movement, complete with exposition repeat, the timpani often resembled the crackle of rapidly approaching gunfire; the start of the slow movement had a wondrous sense of gravitas, with keening oboes, chilling blasts from the horns and the sombre tread of the lower strings perfectly capturing the funereal mood; the strings sounding like humming-birds whirring through the air in the scherzo; the Poco andante section of the finale graced by the most delicious chattering of the antiphonal winds. You walk away from a performance like this believing Beethoven’s Eroica to be the finest symphony ever written.