I’m a late convert to the work of Sir Roger Norrington, primarily as a result of his visits to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. I found his earlier work alienatingly doctrinaire in his approach to period practice, and his anti-vibrato extremism just got in the way of his music-making, or at least of my enjoyment of it. Now at the age of 82, however, he seems to have relaxed his stance on a lot of his previous positions, and the effect is overwhelmingly positive.

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

He’s no longer an anti-vibrato purist, for example (or was that just some of the musicians forgetting themselves?), and that means that his approach to the Romantic orchestral sound is much more nuanced. His take on Schumann's symphonic output, for example, is songful, almost to the point of bel canto, allowing the music to take flight where previously it felt weighed down by adherence to a historical textbook. He is going to be conducting all four Schumann symphonies with the RSNO over this season and next, and including the Overture, Scherzo and Finale means he’ll be giving us a pretty much complete picture of Schumann’s journey as a symphonist. He takes that early work admirably seriously, while remembering that it’s ultimately a fairly light piece. That came through in the flickeringly good-humoured bustle of the Scherzo, as well as in the ending of the finale, which wore its majesty lightly, for all its grandeur.

Even without that attention to the mood of the piece, you have to admire the thoughtfulness with which Norrington approaches his music-making. That starts with his choice of the quantity of musicians (only eight first and eight second violins, for example) which is critical to address the problems of balance that can plague a careless Schumann performance, and his orchestral layout is unusually planned, with antiphonal violins and brass, double basses at the centre rear, and woodwinds standing up, one assumes for the purposes of clear projection. It helped all the inner lines come out, I must say, and I enjoyed the propulsive energy of his Spring Symphony very much, not least the contrast between the weight of the opening and the sprightly energy of the ensuing Allegro, together with the skipping merriment of the finale. He wasn’t completely free of eccentricity – the Scherzo overegged the legato to the point of wilfulness, smoothing over the edges in an unattractively homogenous way – but overall this was a performance to enjoy, and to make you look forward to the rest of the set.

For obvious historical reasons, Mendelssohn is a perfect companion composer for Schumann. In addition to their own close friendship, however, both composers suffer from being overlooked in comparison with some of their contemporaries, and Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto is bafflingly underperformed when you look at the huge quality of what’s there. That quality came to sparkling life under the fingers of Roman Rabinovich, a keyboard whizz who I’d never come across before but who I won’t forget in a hurry. He played Mendelssohn’s quickfire passages with the energy of a spinning top and the control of an old master, delivering a tempest of a first movement and a masterclass of the dance in the finale. It’s the slow movement that most won me over though, not least because of that gorgeous main line of melody, played by the violas and cellos with the consistency of molten chocolate, and Rabinovich’s piano playing seemed to flow in and out of it in a way that showed orchestra and piano in total symbiosis. I’ve never heard a performance which so convinced me that, both in structure and in mood, this concerto is the close twin of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

****1