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Mozart, Schubert; Sir Roger Norrington – conductor; Benjamin Schmid – violin, Philharmonia Orchestra, RFH, December 12th 2002 (AR)

MOZART: Overture, Don Giovanni
MOZART: Violin Concerto No. 2, K211
SCHUBERT: Rondo for Violin and Strings, D438
SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9, The Great

A Norrington performance is always more than a mere concert – it is more of an event: you know you’ll come away from the performance with a radically challenged (and often changed) conception of the scores played: and this concert - from start to finish - was both revelatory and visionary. Norrington presented his programme in a new light, making us feel as if we were hearing the works for the first time – and this is his genius. One felt that the works presented were prepared with the utmost critical reappraisal, with maximum attention to the composer’s markings in the score, combining sensitivity, imagination and refinement of execution.

The concert opened with a vigorous and dramatic account of Mozart’s Don Giovanni Overture. The opening bars had great weight and power and the over-all tempo reminded one of Toscanini. There was something crisp, alert and playful about Norrington’s reading which really gave this overture great freshness, and a breezy start to the evening.

Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 2 was given an extraordinarily subtle, almost skeletal performance by Viennese born Benjamin Schmid. Schimid’s playing has a unique sound which almost defies description. It is allusive, elusive, now sweet, now acidic - yet all these transitions are seamless – and as ephemeral and evanescent as if played under the sea or a great way off.

Norrington coaxed a reduced Philharmonia to play with refinement and finesse echoing Schmid’s translucent sound world; the soloist and Philharmonia strings blending beautifully. This was a perfect partnership between soloist, conductor and orchestra. Unfortunately for Schubert, his Rondo for violin and String Orchestra in A, D.438 was like tawdry paste when juxtaposed with Mozart’s flawless diamond. Here Schmid and the Philharmonia strings played with a slightly darker hue and grainier tone very much suited to this rustic, rough-cut gem. Norrington inspired the Philharmonia strings to surpass themselves; one felt they were reinventing their sound in the style of the soloist; a mesmerising performance.

Rather than conducting Schubert’s ‘Great C Major’ in the customary late-Romantic style, Norrington treats this symphony as a vigorous and Classical work. His fresh ‘re-reading’ of the score was strikingly similar to Toscanini’s accounts of this work: lean, athletic, with a fast, strong, rhythmic thrust and wide dynamic range. One striking feature of Norrington’s conception was to have the double basses placed along the back of the stage with three trombones dividing them in the middle. This lay out seemed to work with the double basses having great weight and presence throughout the performance.

The opening of Schubert’s 9th Symphony was taken at a brisk pace which I suspect some in the audience may have found unfamiliar, even disconcerting. The conductor also brought out the dissonances in the horns in the opening passages which are very rarely heard; indeed, throughout this performance, Norrington emphasised the stridency in the writing for the horns. In the Andante Allegro ma non troppos – the conductor brought an incredible tension to the dialogue between horns and trumpets braking into a climactic silence, followed by glorious ‘cellos. Half-way through this movement one of the trombonists made a very swift exit. Before conducting the Scherzo: Allegro vivace - Norrington leaned forward on his podium to the left to see if the lost trombonist was coming back: he didn’t. The conductor continued, and managed to bring a great contrast between a forward thrusting energy and distilled, laid back contemplation. The strings took on a great cutting toughness, while the woodwinds played with great poignancy. The Allegro vivace had power, weight and attack, creating tension and contrast emphasised by a wide dynamic range. The closing punctuating string and brass had a white hot intensity bringing the work to its fiery conclusion.

A very special evening: old scores not so much settled as given new life. Let us hope we see much more of Maestro Norrington with the Philharmonia

Alex Russell

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