Monday, January 15, 2007

The whimsical mystic

Sir Roger at his 72nd birthday concert.

Sir Roger Norrington's debut with the Handel and Haydn Society this weekend had almost a religious atmosphere; Norrington is the acknowledged guru of the early music movement (an area in which the brilliant Grant Llewellyn didn't really have bona fides), and so his appearance had something of the air of a prophet's descent from on high. And he certainly looked the part, in a black Asian-style smock that somehow projected both Dalai-Lama asceticism and a certain 60's-era hedonism.

But it was immediately evident that Norrington also plays the part. His handling of the evening's program - Haydn's "La passione" and "Drum Roll" symphonies, as well as Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos in E-Flat Major (K.365) - was superb without being showy (even if his whimsical onstage antics got a little hammy). Conducting completely from memory, Norrington's phrasing and articulation were characteristically crisp, but the results hardly lacked for - well - passion; in fact, I've never seen Handel and Haydn play with more fire. The first cellist, perhaps taking his cue from Pete Townsend, actually smashed the bridge on his instrument (the second cellist handed him his own, as protocol demands - but perhaps not without trepidation). The result, in the symphonies, was a startling rich, yet maturely balanced sound - something close to the classical ideal, one was tempted to imagine.

The Mozart was more problematic, although it was brilliantly played - pianists Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang, a married couple, sweetly suggested the camaraderie and the rivalry in the dialogue between its two fortepianos (the parts were originally played by Mozart and his sister). But the instruments' sound (to our ears, an intriguing hybrid of piano and harpsichord) was almost too small for the hall (in the post-concert discussion, even Norrington described them as "on the edge of credibility") - and they were often drowned out by the orchestra. In a way, the performance teased out a lingering question about "historically informed performance" - is it really suitable for all conditions? The increasing size of concert venues was a major force (though not the only one, I know) behind the evolution of the modern orchestra, and one wonders at the wisdom of forcing early instruments into environments with requirements they were never designed to meet. I would welcome the fortepiano into Sanders Theatre, or perhaps even Jordan Hall; but Symphony seems like a stretch.

Such caveats aside, the concert demonstrated that in Norrington, Handel and Haydn has found the perfect interpreter for at least half of its namesake composers; alas, he's only signed on as "Artistic Adviser" during its search for a new Artistic Director. (Perhaps this accounted somewhat for the players' intensity - are they hoping to tempt him to stay?) The good news, however, is that H&H could hardly find a better chaperone for that particular quest.

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