Individual orchestras come and go but they seldom disappear from the musical landscape forever. Not so the Stuttgart RSO, due to be merged with another German radio symphony orchestra in September. On its sixth and therefore final visit to the Proms, this event was especially poignant since the orchestra, under its erstwhile chief conductor, Sir Roger Norrington, affectionately referred to as “der Sir”, was giving its last ever concert. The programme featured three of the great Bs: Berlioz, Beethoven and Brahms.

Sir Roger Norrington © BBC / Chris Christodoulou
Sir Roger Norrington
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou
If nothing else, Norrington forces his audiences to listen with fresh ears to whatever he conducts. In a recent interview he stated that “pure tone (of which he is a primary exponent) tells you what is on the inside”, adding in his characteristically impish way, “You don’t need to giftwrap music.” The overture that Berlioz wrote to his late opera Béatrice et Bénédict is an example of the scrupulous care that the composer took over orchestration. With divided strings and eight basses arrayed along the back of the platform, euphonious horns (no Gallic fruitiness) and butterscotch-like warmth from the clarinets, all Norrington needed to do was maintain a light touch on the tiller. From the initial wisps of sound coaxed gently into life to passages with scurrying strings and the vibrancy of the trumpets in the closing moments, the Stuttgart musicians displayed a commendable unanimity of purpose and transparency of texture. Tovey’s stricture that the work “consists of Much Ado about Nothing without the Ado” is surely too harsh a judgement.

For Robert Levin’s appearance as soloist in Beethoven’s G major concerto, the orchestral layout had undergone an intriguing transformation. Levin, at a lidless piano, faced a conductor immediately opposite him seated in front of the wind, with pared-down strings (two basses on either side of the platform) angled away from the audience towards Norrington. All he then needed to do was exercise a few flicks of his wrist to cue in his players and maintain perfect balance between the sections. Conductor and soloist were thus not only able to see into each other’s eyes throughout the performance, they clearly saw eye-to-eye over the conception of the work. This was Beethoven as an aquarelle, the colours soft and often muted, both pianistically and orchestrally, with none of the gruffness and edginess often associated with this composer. This enabled much of the poetry and intimacy to come across, whereas the opening string statement in the Andante was almost too perfunctory, with no sense of any threat or challenge. Levin’s playing had an admirable clarity to it, and even in the cadenzas (which he chose to improvise, no mean feat!) there was no attempt to take centre-stage. The encore was Schumann’s “Intermezzo” from Faschingsschwank.

Robert Levin (piano) and the SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra © BBC / Chris Christodoulou
Robert Levin (piano) and the SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou

There are many ways to play Brahms’s first symphony, and few ears brought up on historically informed approaches would countenance what has often been derided as this composer’s typical “stodge”. But taking Brahms back to the foundations, with liberally applied paint-stripper, runs a huge risk if all notions of espressivo phrasing are banished from the start. Norrington began without any of the un poco sostenuto marking, the playing very brisk and with startling surges of sound punctuated by pounding timpani. From the very first bars the storm had already arrived without being prepared; there were no gathering clouds which slowly obscured the horizon before the tempest unfolded. Much of the first movement sounded bracing, rather like a surfer in the midst of choppy seas facing blasts of cold air from the brass. All the climaxes, and not only in this movement, were led by the quadruple wind and brass (rather than the strings), lending a metallic sheen to what was already becoming a fierce bank of stark white light.

Yet Brahms benefits enormously from attention to the inner string voices, which provide a bedrock for his individual sound-world, here largely ignored by Norrington. This was especially apparent at the beginning of the Andante, where the sostenuto marking is designed to take the listener into an inner world of repose - balm for the troubled soul. Instead we had buzzing horns and the plaintive oboe solo was unduly hurried along. And although the solos for principal horn and leader were beautifully matched (Norrington could not really be faulted in the balances he achieved), where was the sense of consolation with strings that rasped with more than a touch of stridency? In the finale, the great string melody in C major that leads on from an introduction built upon a sense of impending struggle (here underplayed) was delivered with a surprising nonchalance. When Brahms wants to be grand, why not take him at his word?

After a moving speech from the concertmaster, Natalie Chee, the orchestra performed Brahms’s Hungarian Dance no. 5 in G minor and Elgar’s Nimrod.