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Vaughan Williams, Haydn, and Elgar: Philadelphia Orchestra, Sir Roger Norrington, 1 April 2005 (BJ)


Three works about or related to London made an attractive program for Sir Roger Norrington’s latest Philadelphia engagement. The Vaughan Williams London Symphony and Elgar’s Cockaigne overture flanked the last of the symphonies Haydn wrote for his second visit to the British capital in the 1790s. In this work, Norrington promised during his opening remarks to the audience, a consistent effort was made by the orchestra to avoid all use of vibrato. He represented this as a way of respecting historical accuracy in performing style. Yet it is quite clear from many sources that vibrato, while not used continuously as it came to be in the 20th century, was indeed applied in Haydn’s time to long notes where its effect was deemed appropriate. The New Grove Dictionary article on the subject, for instance, points out that 19th-century theorists including Leopold Mozart "warn against overuse," and that, a fortiori, surely connotes use.


The complete elimination of vibrato, therefore, seems to me to amount to throwing the baby out with the bath-water. Certainly the performance Norrington drew from the orchestra had a degree of freshness, but equally it lacked eloquence at some crucial moments in one of Haydn’s most powerfully communicative symphonic creations. In any case, the conductor’s podium antics worked powerfully against any serious connection between music and audience. Quite aside from whatever we heard, what we saw degenerated from relatively inoffensive beginnings into disgracefully vulgar and self-indulgent exhibitionism. Turning repeatedly toward the audience while he conducted, and mugging various degrees of clownish amusement, Norrington seemed to be saying, "Listen to this bit – it’s really cool" (and I employ that sophomoric usage deliberately, because it is in keeping with the atmosphere that these shenanigans conjured up). Norrington may want to present himself as a sort of cross between Gennady Rozhdestvensky – no mean exponent himself of the delighted grin, though in his case it is directed only at the orchestra – and Harpo Marx. He is, however, neither a conductor to rival the one nor a comedian to match the other. If he thinks this is the way to make music accessible, I beg him most urgently to think again.


Do not misunderstand me. Haydn is a composer possessed of the most delicious wit, and to sit solemnly and without cracking a smile through some of his most diverting thrusts is not at all what I am advocating. But there is a difference between high wit and low humor. With the exception of the celebrated surprise in the symphony of that nickname, and possibly of the joke at the end of the "Joke" Quartet, Haydn’s esprit is all of the former variety. To draw laughter from your audience when you are speaking to it before a concert is one matter, and it is to be welcomed: to provoke loud belly-laughs in the middle of the music, and even at some of its most dramatic and expressive moments, is a very different thing. And by the way, while he was telling us about his respect for historical accuracy, Norrington might with advantage have divulged his reason for leaving out the repeat of the second section of the minuet in the da capo, a repeat that is especially necessary for reasons of balance and musical sense because the repeat of the first section is actually written out in varied form.


End of sermon. Perhaps I should have been less inclined to carp if the performance of the Vaughan Williams before intermission had been more convincing. The orchestra played well, as it almost always does. But this is a work full of poetry and mystery, and neither of those qualities was much in evidence in Norrington’s conception of it. The climax of the first movement, for example – a paradoxical climax, for it is the quietest moment in the entire piece – is a passage of utterly rapt stillness. I shall never forget the inwardness and intensity Vaughan Williams brought to it when I heard him conduct the work, oh, half a century ago. On this occasion it passed without even exciting much attention. The bigger yearning string passages in the slow movement similarly lack grandeur and depth. And as for the scherzo, this Allegro vivace plodded along quite devoid of vivacity. The late William Smith, who conducted the only previous performances of the symphony at these concerts 15 years ago when he was the orchestra’s principal conductor, was not always the most charismatic of musicians, but when he worked on repertoire he felt particularly close to he could be rivetingly good; certainly he understood the London Symphony better and interpreted it more sympathetically than Norrington was able to do.


The more extrovert sections of Elgar’s Cockaigne, being more straightforward, and so less demanding of subtlety in a conductor, fared better. But even here, as at moments throughout the concert, orchestral balance tended toward the hit-and-miss. In the tub-thumping march that appears twice in the course of the piece there is a neat little rhythmic quirk that can function as a touchstone of a conductor’s command of detail – it can with care be played accurately, or, as sometimes happens, it can be assimilated rather loosely to the surrounding rhythmic patterns and thereby lose character. On this occasion, there was no way of knowing how the figure was phrased, because it disappeared into inaudibility under the generalized welter of sound. The loss was typical of the afternoon’s want of conductorial focus and insight.


Bernard Jacobson

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