Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Norrington conducts VW Elgar Holst

Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Holst: Gautier Capuçon, Philharmonia, Philharmonia Voices, Roger Norrington, Royal Festival Hall, London, 14.12.2010 (Gdn)
Vaughan Williams: Overture, The Wasps
Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor Op.85
Holst: The Planets Op.32
In these days of precocious 30-something conductors, Roger Norrington seems like a bastion of old school virtues. Where his younger Eastern European colleagues often seem willing to sacrifice almost any musical virtue in the cause of excitement and energy, Norrington takes a broader view. He's not averse to excitement – just listen to him getting carried away in the Mars movement of The Planets – but he is also a connoisseur of instrumental colour, of unusual balance (especially Holst's many bottom-heavy textures) and of smouldering, slow burning passion.
Then there is the vibrato issue. Norrington is famously of the opinion that any orchestral music before Gurrelieder should be played without string vibrato. All three of the British composers represented in this programme were active when Schoenberg was slowly crafting his early masterpiece, so they are all borderline cases. And while this was not a vibrato-free performance, there was much less of it from the strings than you'd usually expect. In my personal opinion, Norrington is quite right about the issue of vibrato, not that it should be banned at all costs, but rather that it has become a crutch for orchestral string sections, a means of projecting the sound while hiding any minor tuning issues. Norrington leads by example, and as this concert showed, you can find plenty of colour and excitement in an orchestral string sound without habitual vibrato. There was some vibrato in the solo lines, although even here it was usually kept to a minimum.
The concert opened with Vaughan Williams' The Wasps. Its not a very exciting overture, although the introduction is quite distinctive. Norrington started as he meant to go on, with tight control of the orchestra by means of a clearly stated beat throughout. The result was regimented but with plenty of poetry and great playing from the woodwind. The coda was a bit ragged but otherwise a fine opener.
Gautier Capuçon and Roger Norrington are very different musicians, and the tensions between them were evident throughout the Elgar. Capuçon plays with full-blooded Latin passion. His rubato is pronounced but usually tasteful, while his dynamics seem to be always exaggerated and not very tasteful at all. The notes are all there, apart from a few slips in the high runs in the first movement that seem to catch most cellists out, so any complaints I might have probably just come down to matters of taste.
Then there is his vibrato. There was hardly a single note that was spared this slow, pronounced wobble that seemed to stretch to about a quarter tone. My first thought was that he was doing it to annoy Norrington. Even if he wasn't, I can't imagine the conductor was pleased, especially considering the disciplined tone he was managing to draw from the orchestra. The string section of the orchestra had been cut right down for the Elgar, which given the sheer weight (vibrato-assisted of course) of the soloist's tone seemed extreme, and there were many occasions when the soloist completely drowned out the ensemble, a rare occurrence in any concerto. But it turned out that Capuçon's excesses were largely confined to the first movement. He played the semiquavers of the scherzo straight, put his cantabile style to good use in the largo and put some real drive into the finale. I got the impression that Norrington wanted to take the finale slower, so there was tension here as well between the soloist and the orchestra, but they seemed to have reached some kind of agreement by the end. Then Capuçon wholly redeemed himself with a stunning encore, Saint-Saëns' Swan with harp accompaniment – delicate, tasteful...perfect.
Along with his vibrato intervention, Norrington also gave a nod to early 20th century British performance practise by placing the 2nd violins on the right. He also put the basses along the back behind the horns, which is an American rather than British idea I understand. They certainly gave some punch from up there, especially with the help of what remains of the RFH organ. In The Planets, Mars and Jupiter were played at a volume I don't think I have ever heard from the Philharmonia before. But Norrington got the balance just right between energy and order. The Philharmonia strings proved throughout that they have no problems with tuning, even without the help of vibrato. But the real stars of the show were the woodwind. Karen Geoghegan made an unexpected appearance as guest principal bassoon, and while she didn't have many solos to speak of, she certainly led a tight section. It was great to hear the bass oboe too (I see Jane Evans is listed as guest principal bass oboe – how remiss of the Philharmonia not to have a regular bass oboist!).
Just once or twice I felt that Norrington's mature, balanced approach lacked passion, and it was usually in the quieter movements of the Holst. Venus was good (excellent horn solo) but was let down by some poor ensemble in the central section. Saturn was too fast, at least for my taste, although the finely judged relationships between the internal tempos helped it to stay together. And Neptune was, well it just wasn't mystical enough, just a bit too precise and calculated. A slight let down then, at the end of a concert that was otherwise a revelation in the renewing powers of performance styles of days gone by.
Gavin Dixon

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