Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Roger that, Sir Roger

During the breather between Beethoven's Fourth and Sixth at Symphony Hall last weekend, conductor Sir Roger Norrington was invested with an honorary doctorate by the New England Conservatory (above). It was a charming (and affectionate) gesture, but in a way an ironic one - because it was Sir Roger who had just taught us all about Beethoven, rather than the other way around.

Of course here in Boston, we always imagine that we're at the head of the class, even when we're actually in the last row (Norrington's Beethoven long ago took the world by storm - indeed, it's hard to believe his game-changing recordings of the nine symphonies were issued in the 1980s). And while yes, we've heard Sir Roger often over the last few years at Handel and Haydn, he has usually been conducting Haydn (at which he's quite wonderful); I believe this is the first time we've heard his take on Beethoven live in the Athens of America.

Thinking again about the concert, I'm drawn inevitably to that tired old critical cliché, "revelation." I know, I know - if you don't like that hobbled old warhorse, try, as thesaurus.com suggests, "divination," "earful," or "epiphany." But really, the Sixth in particular was, indeed, a revelation - or at least a rapturous demonstration of the virtues of period playing and instrumentation. And perhaps it even stood as a witty, friendly rebuttal to Harry Christophers, H&H's current artistic director, who argues that period playing is best suited to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

For perhaps of any of the great composers, Beethoven has been most obscured by Wagnerian trends toward symphonic gloss and grandness. With the drier, more plangent tones of period instruments, you lose much of that golden, Germanic glare that coats so many modern performances, and suddenly a whole landscape of detailed musical architecture opens up before you; there were delicate little accents from the winds in the opening movement of the Sixth, for instance, that I swear I've never heard before. And Sir Roger's much-debated decision to follow Beethoven's own metronome markings does, indeed, sometimes shock (as in, can that theme really be going that fast?), but it also results in a sense of constant engagement, and transforms the music from "profound" pronouncement into brilliant conversation.

All this was immediately evident in the opening bars of the under-rated Fourth. Elegant, forceful, and beautifully constructed, the Fourth plays like a kind of turbo-charged classicism - but as it doesn't tap into the heroic depths found in its younger and older siblings, the Third and Fifth, it has never achieved their cultural profile. Norrington didn't, I think, change anybody's mind about that, and he seemed to lose focus in a surprisingly slack second movement - but he and the orchestra recovered brilliantly for a truly dynamic (even glittering) finale.

Then, of course, came the Sixth - the work you always argue with yourself over when you're trying to decide which Beethoven symphony is your most favorite one of all. Here it was leaner, and yet more lyrical, than you may remember it, while at the same time the scene-painting (the rippling brook, the bird-calls in the forest, the gathering storm) felt more specific than ever. Norrington generally kept things light and quick, but not rushed (perhaps he himself has eased off on the accelerator pedal), and he toyed bemusedly with tipsy rhythms in the "merry gathering" movement (with the winds repeatedly lurching in almost too late for their cues). The storm felt more sudden, and more tempestuous, than usual (kudos to John Grimes's galvanic work on timpani), and thus its aftermath all the sweeter. Like Beethoven's country folk, we, too, felt that something of great power and beauty had just passed overhead.