At the grand age of 82, Sir Roger Norrington may have slowed down his conducting career but I’m very pleased to report that he is still very much a rebel at heart and that he still loves stirring things up at his concerts. He has always been against “music being handed down from on high” and has once said in an interview: “I love things that break the ice in concerts. I love it when the audience feels confident enough to respond. When that happens, you know the evening is going to be a good one.”
Well, he certainly broke the ice on Saturday evening at the Royal Festival Hall when he conducted Haydn’s The Creation with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and London Philharmonic Choir. There was an expectant buzz even before the concert began, which is not always the case with regular orchestral concerts at this venue. Perhaps in these uncertain times we were craving for this life-affirming work to uplift us?
Sir Roger walked rather gingerly to the stage with his trio of the vocal soloists, but once he was settled on his swivel chair on the podium (which looks like an ordinary office chair!) he was in his element. Before he raised the baton, he set the mood with a little talk about how this work was not a “solemn, religious work” such as Bach’s Passions but an “awe-inspiring but enjoyable” work, and encouraged us to clap between the numbers as people actually did at the first performance in Vienna in 1799 (he then read from an account of a person who attended the première). So it was not just non-vibrato for the orchestra, but historical practice for us audience too, and most people around me seemed eager to clap.
In fact, the “non-vibrato” thing is really a non-issue with an orchestra like the LPO that is well acquainted with Norrington’s performance style. I noted the raw sonority of non-vibrato strings in the opening depiction of Chaos, but after that they played with such lively phrasing and articulation that I ceased to notice. Norrington’s conducting is generally broad and often he uses the smallest of gestures to beat time, but he knows how to inspire his musicians –shaping a phrase, emphasising a change in harmonic colour or injecting energy in a particular part – to which the orchestra and chorus responded vividly and with visible joy. Even the most mundane accompaniment figures in the second violins or violas were played with a keen sense of harmony, which makes all the difference in a Haydn work – it brings out more colour and vibrancy than what is notated in the page. The horns and brass were suitably buoyant too.
Of course, the protagonists of the Creation are the three vocal soloists (and the chorus) and what a glorious trio they were. Soprano Lucy Crowe (Gabriel/Eve) was a late replacement for the indisposed Susan Gritton, but one would not have known it. Her singing was simply divine; in particular, she dazzled in Gabriel’s aria “On mighty pens” where she imitated the larks, turtle-doves and nightingales with ravishing virtuosity. The woodwinds were excellent in their respective bird solos too. This aria certainly got the longest applause – and perhaps it did in Haydn’s day too.
Christopher Maltman took the two baritone roles, singing Raphael with eloquence and authority then Adam’s duets with Eve with a lighter charm (Their costume change as Adam and Eve was a nice visual touch too). Thomas Hobbs, with his clear-sounding English tenor voice, sang Uriel with lyricism and honesty, if perhaps with less dramatic flair than the other two. I must also mention the tasteful recitative accompaniment on the fortepiano by Catherine Edwards.
The London Philharmonic Choir was in great form too. The way they all stood up in the opening chorus at “…and there was Light” heightened the drama, and the big choral numbers “Awake the harp” and “Achieved is the glorious work” were sung with gusto and grandeur. Their precision wavered momentarily at the finale double-fugue (admittedly Norrington took it at a pretty brisk tempo) but otherwise their joyous singing hugely contributed to the feel-good factor of the evening. I’m sure singing in English (in the text revised by Paul McCreesh) gave extra immediacy both for the performers and the audience.
So as Sir Roger had prescribed, plenty of enjoyment was to be had all around, on stage and in the auditorium. And it was a poignant touch to be reminded of the first performance too. Long live Haydn and his Creation!
*This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 13 February.
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