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Old Wizard at Work

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/20/2017 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphonies No. 33 in B flat Major, K. 319, & No. 36 in C Major “Linz”, K. 425 – Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466
Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)
Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Sir Roger Norrington (conductor)

R. Norrington (© Julia Gang)

When nearly thirty years ago, years before his was knighted, Roger Norrington appeared or rather burst on the New York concert scene, he was perceived as an iconoclast, provocateur and enfant-terrible, in addition to being a visionary in the field of what we know as the classical period. As one of the firsts, he demanded a leaner sound, faster tempi and strange arrangements of instruments on stage, all of which allowed him to show us that music we thought we knew very well suddenly sounded fresh and incredibly exciting.

Well, today some of Sir Roger’s revolutionary ideas have become informed performance practice and don’t surprise us as much as then. What remains, as we are confronted with Sir Roger and his erstwhile orchestra, is the old provocateur and showman, a charming showman I need to add: there is something disarming about his blatant appeal to the audience to behave as the audiences have some two centuries ago. Before the concert started, our conductor addressed his audience and implored us to applaud after every movement of the symphony and piano concerto: that of course is not all that difficult to ask for, since some members display their ignorance daily by applauding when it sometimes is very unnecessary (read Fred Kirshnit review of Emanuel Ax recital just two days later, April 22). Whereas that request bothered me less in the case of say first movement of each of the symphonies, it was far less appealing when I awaited an attacca appearance of the finale of the piano concerto. Thus, a nice idea though it may backfire after awhile. As the good salesman that he invariably is, Sir Roger promised his audience that they will be rewarded by a very special encore....if they behave well. Behave they did, and the encore was indeed special: I will come back to it at the end.

Nowadays, Sir Roger conducts sitting down, this time in a swivel chair which at the end of each and every movement he’d swing toward the audience, urging it to show appreciation.

He also positions his musicians on stage in a slightly unusual manner, sometimes more than expected. Musicians form a semicircle, with first-desk players surrounding the conductor and the wind players perform standing up and positioned antiphonally. I don’t know if Norrington’s impressive results can be attributed only position of players, but they were impressive indeed. In his opening talk to the audience, he mentioned important aspects of performing music of the Classical Period such as articulation, timbre and balance between the sections of the orchestra, but first and foremost the phrasing. Already in the first Symphony, the seldom performed one in B flat Major, where we can hear some motifs that later will appear in the finale of his great last symphony (the Jupiter), all the elements mentioned by Sir Roger came to the fore. The sound of the ensemble was warm, probably in large degree because of the constant presence of double basses and loving phrasing of the rest of string section. Winds blended nicely without losing their individuality. I was impressed by the elegance and dignity of the Menuetto: here it was presented as a stately dance with wonderfully delineated winds in the Trio section. The last Allegro assai had all the necessary virtuosity, lightness and grace: a splendid performance by the excellent musicians that comprise the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. I had the distinct feeling they also like to play for their former musical director, who nowadays not so much conducts them as leads them with general gestures of encouragement, turning on his swivel chair to this or that section and showing his appreciation in a fatherly manner.

I had a harder time accepting the wisdom of positioning the piano for the next piece: there is a tradition, perhaps even a necessity to stage the concert grand with the keyboard facing the audience and soloist with his back to the audience when the pianist happens to also conduct the orchestra. Such was recently the case when Maestro Barenboim played several Mozart piano concertos with his Berlin Staatskapelle. The results of such a placement of piano are invariably questionable: for a large segment of the audience sitting in the orchestra seats, especially those in the front, the sound is diffused and distant. The situation improves if one sits upstairs and forewarned that in the case of Sir Roger and his soloist, Benjamin Grosvenor, our conductor insisted on this unnecessary placement of the solo instrument, I moved to the balcony, where the sound is always great, clear, detailed and was such also for the piano concerto. For the concerto, Sir Roger placed himself at the tail of the piano and facing both pianist and the audience. Behind he had cellos and double-basses: I suppose no disrespect to them.

Grosvenor, the young British star and fortunately a relatively frequent visitor to New York played his part stylishly with brilliance, grace and crystal-clear touch. It was a welcomed change from a rather sketchy rendition of the same work on the same some three months earlier, when Mr. Barenboim was both playing and conducting. Sir Roger predictably stressed the drama of the work, which is after all in the key of D minor which the composer reserved for his most poignant masterpieces. The tempo for the first movement was on the fast side but not rushed and had a right feeling. Mr. Grosvenor didn’t, as some pianists do, offer his own cadenza, relying rather on the one by Beethoven, which, in my opinion, to this day remains the best there is and that includes the ones that were left by the composer himself. Under the young Brit it had the urgency and forward momentum that in the past characterized performances of Richter or Serkin.

I recall a performance of this concerto some 25 years ago, when Mr. Norrington (then not yet knighted) conducted the pianist Emanuel Ax: the tempo for the middle movement Romance was unusually rapid and it took a moment to adjust to it. Well, here at Carnegie we were confronted again with the same concept of playing “on one breath”: it is perhaps startling, because we are not used to it, but as everything with Sir Roger interpretations, may have a historical justification. The finale was exuberant, spirited and exciting: it had one little cadenza, as it probably would have if the composer was at the piano. After that infectious, virtuosic and full of brio last movement the audience didn’t let the pianist go and he was gracious to offer an encore, by a composer whose first and last name begins with M: it was the Etude in A flat Major op.72, No. 11 by Moritz Moszkowski. Its brilliance and nonchalant virtuosity brought to mind another performance of that piece, in the same hall and also offered as an encore: Vladimir Horowitz’ comeback recital in May of 1965. I wonder. if heard side-by-side, the audience would have voted for the old master’s performance and that is to be taken as the highest compliment for this wonderful young musician.

The second half of the concert was devoted to the better known of the two presented symphonies, known as the Linz, as it was hastily written during Mozart’s visit to that city in 1783. As previously, Sir Roger achieved wondrous results with his orchestra which hails among its members some of the best free-lance players in the business. I was again very impressed with conductor’s musicality and sense of style, where the music would always be super-charged and yet never sounded rushed. Obviously, the old wizard knows a thing or two about vocal phrasing after having worked with opera companies all over the world. The only thing I would challenge was the idea of talking all the possible repeats: yes, it is textually accurate but if we start from the premise that for a concert we transport ourselves some two and a half centuries back, I am afraid that those audiences would probably not sit in attention for a work that with all repeats lasts 40 minutes! But here, the Carnegie Hall audience lasted, listened intently and applauded as directed and for that, as our conductor-cum-MC promised, they were rewarded amply. On stage came Susan Graham, one of our foremost mezzo-sopranos who has worked previously with Sir Roger, and sang Sesto aria “Deh, per questo istante” from Mozart La clemenza di Tito. It was a very affecting, very rewarding, beautifully sung performance and a most unexpected encore after an already long evening.

What on paper might have looked like another run-of-the mill all Mozart affair, a solo concerto wrapped between two symphonies, turned out to be one of the most exciting and absorbing events of the month. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s may not be automatically associated with the music of Mozart, but Mozart playing simply doesn’t come much better than what that ensemble and their charismatic conductor demonstrated.

Roman Markowicz



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