Billed as ‘Dr Haydn’s London Academy’, this Royal Northern Sinfonia concert took on extra significance a fortnight ago when it was announced that it would be Sir Roger Norrington’s final appearance on the podium. An opportunity for Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, perhaps? No. Instead, it was deliciously apt that Sir Roger should choose to call time on his career by conducting a performance of the “Clock” Symphony. The period instrument revolutionary, who’s delighted in tossing hand grenades that have challenged and changed classical music’s terrain, departed with a twinkle – and perhaps a tear – in his eye.

Sir Roger Norrington conducts the Royal Northern Sinfonia
© Thomas Jackson at Tynesight Photography

During his five decades of music-making, Norrington was at the forefront of historically informed performance practices. He was one of the first to expand the horizons of the period instrument movement into Beethoven – eschewing vibrato and strictly applying the composer’s metronome markings – before extending his ideas to encompass Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Elgar. His work with non-period performers was just as significant, proving that period manners can be applied to modern instrument orchestras, particularly successfully during his tenure at the SWR Stuttgart Symphony. 

In the RNS, the 87-year old Norrington had another non-period outfit to bow out with but, as he explained in an amiable introduction, fidelity to the score’s tempo markings and an orchestral layout that included antiphonal violins and divided woodwinds were key factors, along with the lack of wobble from the strings. “They call it vibrato, I think,” he teased. “I haven’t heard it for many years now!”

Sir Roger Norrington conducts the Royal Northern Sinfonia
© Thomas Jackson at Tynesight Photography

The programme was typically Norringtonesque, the idea being to recreate the concert-going experience you might have enjoyed in London in the 1790s. So this wasn’t an evening where the full orchestra – or indeed the conductor – were in action all the time. Before the interval, Haydn’s “Drumroll” Symphony was interrupted halfway through by songs and chamber music. The Clock was preceded by more songs and a march for wind band. 

The small scale items were all done with charm. Susan Gritton sang two sets of English Canzonettas, accompanied by Steven Devine’s nimble playing on the fortepiano (he also decorated lines tastefully in the two symphonies). The four string principals, led by Polish violinist Maria Włoszczowska, tackled Haydn’s String Quartet in D major, Op.76 no.5, with clean lines, springy tempi and a nice sense of attack in the finale.

Susan Gritton and Steven Devine
© Sage Gateshead

Both symphonies were crisply played by the RNS. Nothing crawled – Norrington explained that there are few real slow movements in Haydn – although the two Minuets were stately. The second movement Andante in the Drumroll flowed, while that in the Clock – the metronomic tick-tock in the woodwinds providing its moniker – hurried along at a brisk pace. Outer movements had all the familiar punch and energy one associates with his music-making. 

Above all, it was fun. I’ve been watching Norrington for decades. His gestures are smaller now than when he was nicknamed (in certain circles) “the human windmill”; the left hand is largely redundant these days, but there is still vigour, inciting dynamic timpani interjections. There was also his familiar showman style, winking, beaming at soloists, and spinning on his swivel chair at the end of movements, arms akimbo, to invite audience applause. Purely for reasons of authenticity, of course. Farewell, Sir Roger, and a heartfelt thank you.

Sir Roger Norrington bows out
© Sage Gateshead


This performance was reviewed from the Sage Gateshead live video stream

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