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Seen and Heard Prom Review


PROM 31: Smetana and Mahler, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Sir Roger Norrington, RAH, 7th August 2004 (MB)


National Youth Orchestra proms are usually great events; this one, for a number of reasons, was a profound disappointment. A large and appreciative crowd might have thought otherwise, of course, given the copious applause between movements and after, but the fact remains the playing was torpid, stifled and plain dull.


Roger Norrington, in one of the most inept displays of conducting I have seen for many years, must share much of the responsibility for this. In both the excerpts from Ma Vlast (so appallingly done I have no desire to cause embarrassment by writing about it) and Mahler’s First Symphony an over-studied approach manifested itself quickly. His conducting was extremely rigid and tempi were excessively slow. At times, the orchestra played on the beat, at other times they played before it… rarely did it seem that they played after the beat which was what Norrington was aiming, though perhaps not pressing, for. Norrington’s professed preference for vibrato-less playing didn’t always come off either: during the Mahler some of the ‘cellos seemed all but invincible to vibrato-less tone and one felt sorry for the solo double-bass at the opening of the third movement of Mahler’s First: such dry, hard edged playing was nakedly unattractive to the ear.


It’s hard to know what went wrong with the orchestra, other than for the fact that they played both works in a highly academic manner, seemingly exercising laboriously over the notes rather than simply enjoying themselves. One wondered constantly whether any player understood the difference between vibrato and portamento, or the minimisation of both in performance. This was especially conspicuous during the symphony, as was a failure to distinguish between vibrato and tremolo. Differences in pitch are noticeably different from fluctuations in intensity and it was the latter which most detracted from the power both works desperately needed.


There were few compensations, but when they did happen they were mostly on the surface rather than beneath it. Some splendidly careful phrasing was evident in the cough-spluttered, and therefore marred, opening to the Mahler (indeed, it was quite evocative after the sound adjustment) and the off stage trumpets had a magical sense of spaciousness. But where was the jauntiness and the jovial brilliance of Mahler’s orchestration – the clarinet that mimics the cuckoo, for example, here simply a scratched bellowing? Timing was a problem in the second movement (Mahler wrote it in triple time) but rather than stamping it the orchestra was content to make it sound lumpen. The third movement almost defied gravity – a dream that had become slumber. The opening to the fourth – in what should be a scream of despair, both furious and grim (or as someone said later ‘like Moses smashing the Ten Commandments’) – simply floundered. It was if someone had turned the electricity off. It was never turned back on.


The quality of the orchestral playing isn’t really in dispute here – often it was very fine, especially from the brass – what is in dispute is the sheer failure of the orchestra, and their conductor, to generate any voltage whatsoever. The close of Mahler’s First – that wondrous peroration of brass – is one of the climactic moments in symphonic music. It went for nothing in this performance.


It was pointed out to me how bored the orchestra looked during this concert. Having the misfortune to play Mahler under a conductor who has little rapport with the composer it is hardly surprising. Heaven forbid if there is any truth in the rumour that Norrington is soon to start recording him.


Marc Bridle




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