The programme for Prom 62 featured two well loved symphonies from the standard Romantic repertoire: Beethoven’s Eighth and Dvořák’s New World. But if anyone had come to this expecting a standard, familiar performance, they were in for a shock: Sir Roger Norrington has highly individual views on how this music should sound.

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

It’s well known that Norrington favours a string sound without vibrato, but that’s really only the starting point. Norrington conducted the Beethoven without a score, at tempi that were generally fast and generally even, with little or no rubato. On the other hand, accenting was intense and the dynamic range was broad. Percussion was played loud, with a predominance of hard topped sticks for the timpani.

The effect of all this was to excise from the piece any romantic (with a small r) lushness and sweep, while bringing the details and humour of the score to the foreground. The Eighth is full of improbable key changes and little musical jokes, and it was clear that Norrington enjoys these hugely: his whole body language indicated a desire to make the very most of the amusement that the piece engenders in him and bring it to the audience.

This approach is helped by the uniform excellence of the principal wind players in the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. Parallel flute and oboe lines were so tight that they sounded like a single player of a new, hybrid instrument; horn solos were rich and resonant, staccato bassoon lines delightfully quirky. With the clean string sound, there was plenty of space in which to hear all these individual virtuosic performances, and the use of additional wind players (four of each of the main instruments) ensured that the winds were always prominent. The price, though, was an absence of richness in the strings. From our seats, out to the right, the eight double basses (positioned high and centrally) were clearly audible and violin sound was clear in the higher register. But viola and cello sound was almost completely lost, and with it any of the romantic arc familiar from most other interpretations of Beethoven.

For me, this worked best in the second movement Allegretto scherzando (the Eighth reverses the usual “slow movement - scherzo” sequence, with the third movement minuet being the closest we get to a slow movement), in which the brightness and accenting seemed to match the score’s rhythmic nature, and the fast tempi added to the humour. It worked least well in the fourth movement, which is very fast anyway and, to my ears at least, came out a little breathless.

The Beethoven was followed by a short extract from Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, for which the orchestra was augmented by two harps and additional brass and percussionists. I wasn’t particularly convinced: Berlioz’s music is full of repressed passion, but I heard more repression than passion, with little to show for the additional musicians in the way of textural interest.

So I was concerned, in the interval, by how Norrington’s rather austere approach might come across when applied to Dvořák’s New World Symphony, one of the most intensely romantic pieces in the repertoire. For the first two movements, I was pleasantly surprised. Unlike the Beethoven, Norrington gave the orchestra plenty of rubato and plenty of space, the effect being a rendering of great clarity. Once again, the relatively thin string timbre left a lot of space in which to hear a great deal of detail in the score: it was a great rendering for anyone whose main desire is to hear every note and understand the way this music is constructed. In the third movement, however, things began to get slightly ragged, with some bad dynamic imbalances and a few bad wrong notes. For the fourth movement, Norrington returned to a breakneck speed: we had plenty of excitement, but perhaps less clarity than earlier in the symphony. After a high octane ending, the choice of encore needed to be something to bring us down, and we were treated to a relatively gentle rendition of the prelude to Fauré’s suite Pelleas et Mélisande.

Reactions to this performance will be split, I expect. If you came to this unaware of Norrington’s idiosyncratic style and expected something traditionally romantic, you are likely to have been sorely disappointed by the lack of lushness, drama or any attempt to make you abandon your critical faculties and sweep you up in the music – something of which the New world symphony is clearly capable. On the other hand, if you wanted clarity, humour and the chance of hearing something new in the score, those things were there aplenty. An interesting evening, if not an emotional one.