Breaking conventions at 82: Prom 17 – Stuttgart SWR/Norrington Review

This year was my first at the BBC Proms, though not my first Proms concert, that accolade goes to Prom number 2; the Royal Opera’s production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, conducted by its musical director, Sir Antonio Pappano. The Proms is the biggest classical music event of the year, and, arguably, also the most accessible of the lot. So who better to break convention that an 82 year old man who champions HIP (historically informed performances)? The above statement may sound a bit ironic, if not contradictory, but that’s a problem I might get to another time. In short, we all tend to become a bit too reserved at concerts, keeping an ear out for every mistake, be it a note played/sung badly, or wrongly, ready to mentally point it out, or in some cases jeer at it. Performances should be well polished, but are never perfect, they can’t be. It’s more or less impossible for such a thing to exist. Expecting it to be so inevitable leads to disappointment, taking all the fun out of them.

The world of classical music and opera is full of conventions, some of which can seem very barring to newcomers. Enter 82 year old Sir Roger Norrington. He has the violins facing each other, as opposed to sitting next to one another, uses no vibrato (also called “pure tone”), encourages clapping in between movements, has comical interactions with the audience, and even turns to them mid performance. Normally, this stuff never happens in a concert. Concerts should be fun, joyous and uplifting experiences, and this is what Norrington does, he puts the fun back into concerts. And where better to do this than at the Proms?

First on the programme was the overture to Berlioz’ opera, Beatrice and Benedict. With it being 400 years since Shakespeare’s death this year, the Proms features the Bard regularly this year. Though I had never heard this overture before, I thought it was played with great pace – a hallmark of Norrington – which really brought out the overture’s comedy and made it great fun to listen to.

Next was Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. A few surprises were in store as the stage was reset for this. The orchestra was greatly scaled down from the Berlioz with at least half the orchestra gone. The piano was surrounded by the orchestra, positioned as a conductor/player would do it, so pianist Robert Levin’s back faced the audience. Norrington, meanwhile, sat on the opposite side of the piano facing audience, with his own back towards the woodwinds and brass. Once in position he gestured to Levin to start, as you would when you say “please, after you”, generating laughs from the audience. After the first movement Norrington himself started to applaud with the rest of the audience soon joining in. An unusual set up to be sure, not that the performance suffered.

BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The main course was Brahms’ First Symphony, which the composer laboured over for 21 years before giving its first performance. The SWR was back in full force, and what a great sight it was. I’ve always found seeing a massive orchestra on stage quite awesome and impressive. After the first movement there was a small ripple of applause, but it didn’t catch on. After the second, however, Norrington was encouraging everyone to applaud, and so they did, for good reason. The evening was shaping up to be quite spectacular, but dessert was still to be served. The usual hallmarks of a Norrington performance could be seen here also; pace and varied dynamics thrusting the symphony along. Truth be told, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the symphony performed like this, which was not a bad thing by any means. Brahms’ First is a staple of the repertoire, it’s a very familiar piece of music. Norrington made it sound fresh, vibrant and alive, like the young composer who wrote it. It wasn’t a very grand and almost statesmen like presentation, which is how it’s often heard.  The result? The ending was edge of the seat stuff, uplifting and jubilant, throwing the audience into rapturous, and well deserved, applause. Norrington showed his appreciation with an encore: Brahms’s Hungarian Dance number five.

BBC/Chris Christodoulou

This was turning out to be a fabulous evening. But all was not over, not yet.

The leader of the orchestra stood up to say a few words. Sadly, the SWR Stuttgart is merging with SWR Baden-Baden Freiburg Symphony Orchestra – yes, both are called SWR – due to budget cuts. This was their final performance together before the merger. The talk was followed by Elgar’s “Nimrod” variation. The orchestra members then rose to their feet, gave a bow and hugged each other. As this happened, they left the stage to a standing ovation until only Sir Roger was left, who acknowledged the crowd one last time before leaving the stage himself.

I can honestly say this specific prom included many firsts for me, from seeing Norrington conduct, to listening to a Berlioz piece, to the unusual layout for Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto. I’m going to remember this concert fondly for many years to come.


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