BBC Prom 17: Berlioz, Beethoven, Brahms
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (SWR)
Sir Roger Norrington, Robert Levin
Royal Albert Hall, 28 July 2016
Few in the audience would have realised what a poignant and emotional, event this Prom was to be until after the encore, when the leader Natalie Chee took a microphone and addressed the packed Royal Albert Hall to explain that, due to spending cuts, the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra is to merge with the SWR Symphony Orchestra in September, and that this was their very last concert. Founded in the dark days of 1945 this distinguished orchestra has built an enormous international reputation, not least during the years from 1998 to 2011 when Sir Roger Norrington was their chief conductor, bringing his noted ‘historically informed’ performance practice to this modern instrument orchestra, producing a distinctive style – the ‘Stuttgart sound’. The two merging orchestras are both under the auspices of Südwestrundfunk (South West Radio), the public broadcaster for Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, and have very different repertoires and styles. It was entirely appropriate that Roger Norrington, now their Conductor Emeritus, was the conductor for their final concert.
Berlioz’s sparkling and witty overture to Beatrice and Benedict opened the evening, with Norrington’s characteristic attention to detail being at the forefront. Not for the first time during the evening, I made a mental note to check the score as Norrington revealed little details that would almost inevitably be found in the score, but had been ignored by generations of conductors. In his usual determination to bring audience and performers together, at the end, Norrington, perched on his now usual swivel chair, swung round with a flourish towards the audience as all the string players raised their bows in salute.
Similar humorous touches came several times during the evening, notably at the start of the Beethoven Piano Concerto (No 4 in G). This entailed an almost entire stage re-configuration, with most of the orchestra leaving before smaller forces (with natural trumpets, and smaller, more incisive timpani) reappeared in a format that could perhaps best be described as a vesica, with the (concert grand) piano in the middle of an oval, facing north-south away from the audience, with the string players divided on either side, arched in towards the piano, and the woodwind on the raised dais behind the piano. Soloist Robert Levin sat at the business end of the piano, while Roger Norrington sat at the other, in front of the woodwind. Levin and Norrington went through a little routine of ‘You first … No, you start’ before Levin started the concerto with Beethoven unusual sotto voce piano solo introduction.
I associate Robert Levin more with Mozart performance than Beethoven. The former seems to match Levin’s rather whimsical and, occasionally, ‘look what a clever boy I am’ persona, but both were evident in this performance. Perhaps the 4th piano concerto was an appropriate work to choose, at it features a lighter, less dogmatic and less intense side of Beethoven. The piano is often reduced to quite solo spots or gentle filigree figuration or, as in the opening of the Andante con moto, to soothing the orchestra’s strident motifs – here reflecting the story of Orpheus taming the Furies. As with the opening movement, Levin frequently spread chords, harpsichord style and added ornaments and improvisational elements of his own (amongst a number of fluffed notes). Levin improvised his own cadenzas, a practice I have some reservations about when Beethoven proved his own perfectly acceptable cadenzas. His final cadenza was rather too bombastic, given the overall mood of the final movement but, otherwise they were in appropriate style. Reservations aside, this was a delightful interpretation by Norrington and Levin, bringing much needed light and shade to Beethoven interpretation. Multiple Levin hugs and a Schumann encore followed – the latter a nice link to the concluding Brahms Symphony, with its strong reference to Robert and Clara Schumann.
Light and shade were also the hallmark of the Brahms First Symphony. This was where Norrington’s pioneering period performance credentials really came into their own, as he delivered an interpretation where the vibrato-free strings shone through with clean incisiveness, as did the excellent woodwind players of the SWR. The slightly reduced volume of the strings against the woodwind (when compared with the more usual modern instrument performance) allowed the detail of the woodwind lines to shine through. Again there were several ‘check the score’ moments, not least in Norrington’s slight stressing of what could be called a tactus beat in the opening bars. Norrington seemed to have a particular affinity with the horn players, relished their entries and encouraging a wonderfully buzzy sound at just the right moments. Occasional twists round in his swivel chair let the audience know that a good bit was coming up, and he would often just lean back, sideways on, while a particularly good woodwind solo was in progress.
The main encore of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance brought on a few players for the first time of the evening, including a triangle player and a fifth horn player. This was followed by Natalie Chee’s sad announcement that this was their last concert of Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra – it was clearly a shock to most of the audience. She spoke warmly and movingly about their strong links with Sir Roger Norrington (or Der Sir, as they call him) and, despite their ‘breaking hearts’, their appreciation that their final concert was given at the Proms with the extraordinary Albert Hall audience. Their consummate professionalism was then demonstrated by a beautiful performance of Elgar’s Nimrod, played while most of the audience (and probably the players) were in tears. How these extraordinary players kept it all together I really do not know. The entire 5000-plus audience then stood, and remained standing and applauding until, after lengthy on-stage hugs and tears, the very last member of the orchestra finally left the stage, each one greeted by Norrington at the side of the stage as they did so. This was one of the most moving and memorable occasions I have ever experienced in classical music.
The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards. Natalie Chee’s speech, and Nimrod, can be heard at around 2h15’.
Photos: BBC / Chris Christodoulou