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Beethoven, Schumann: Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Sir Roger Norrington (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 4.12.2009 (SRT)

Leonore Overture No. 2, Symphony No. 2
Schumann: Symphony No. 2

I have not always been flattering to Sir Roger Norrington in these pages, not least at his Edinburgh Festival 2009 concert, but even I was taken aback by the excitement and, yes, beauty of his evening with the RSNO, the first time he has conducted them. Whereas I had found Norrington wan, pallid and uninteresting with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, he managed to coax an engaging and always interesting sound from the full-scale modern forces of the RSNO. Yes, the distinctive period rasp was there in the tuttis, but the timing of the silences between them was daring and exciting in the slow opening section of Leonore 2 and I was genuinely surprised by the warmth of the string sound when the main theme stole in. The same was true for Beethoven’s second symphony where Norrington did exactly what period practise is supposed to do: he stripped away the varnish of tradition to make a familiar classic seem fresh and invigorating. The tutti chords that began the slow introduction fairly leapt off the page and the first movement was pacy and exciting. The second was warm and beautiful whereas I had found his Festival Haydn cold and colourless. The scherzo was unusually slow but the chuckling winds in the Trio section were superb and the finale went hell for leather, as well it should.

In an engaging chat with the audience Norrington explained that he was greatly increasing the size of the orchestra for the Schumann, including doubling the winds and adding many extra strings. This naturally leant more weight to Schumann’s heavier orchestration in the first movement, but he still achieved some commendable bounce in the dactylic first subject. Nearly half of these new instruments fell entirely silent for the slow movement, however, an effect Norrington said would have been entirely consistent with Schumann’s time considering the size of his halls and the number of his players. The slow movement was poignant and delicate, but the full-blooded peroration of the final C major moments packed its own special punch. So if I’m being perfectly frank then I admit I enjoyed this evening far more than I thought I was going to, a tribute to a conductor who has made a career out of confounding our expectations: tonight he certainly confounded mine.

Simon Thompson


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