Leaving his mark on Beethoven
Sir Roger Norrington is irrepressible. At 76, he walks carefully from the stage door to the conductor’s box, then, without a score, launches into a Beethoven symphony with a kind of waving-palm-tree motion that tells you he’s wholly in his element.
He still can be a naughty boy. He’ll end a movement by turning around and throwing out his hands on the final beat: Ta-da! He thanks the audience at Symphony Hall when it applauds between movements (something he has encouraged). When a storm threatens in the middle of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony he looks at the ceiling worryingly, drawing laughter.
Godlike Beethoven — fun? The one composer whose name is carved on Symphony Hall’s proscenium?
The naughtiness has been essential. Without it, Norrington would never have revolutionized the performance of classical music with startling notions of period practice — or withstood the critics who hated him for it. Norrington has made the case, however, that late Baroque and early Classical-period music should be played at faster tempos, with less vibrato and lighter and more vigorous bowing, aiming for a transparent texture that allows woodwinds and strings to exchange musical ideas and colors. Brass and percussion should provide bright, startling punctuation.
All this makes something particularly exciting of Beethoven and, for this listener on Sunday afternoon, when he led the Handel and Haydn Society, a revelation of Beethoven’s Sixth, the “Pastoral’’ Symphony.
Such a success was not expected after the opening Fourth Symphony by Beethoven, which was alternately sluggish (a very slow opening adagio) and frayed (in the fast movements, where Norrington pressed at close to superhuman speeds). At times, you could read his lack of investment as his body slackened and he beat time through the duller passagework. After intermission, however, he returned to give us a beautiful, energetic, nuanced performance of the Sixth — and clearly shaped it, from first to last.
We had a languid visit to the country and a delightfully stagey storm (which is how it sounds on period instruments). One picked up details that are usually blanketed by heavy strings: in the first movement, a series of downward licks of the flutes, for example, that suggested — don’t ask me how — worms turning in the earth, or, after the storm, the distancing thunder in the cellos. The “Merry Gathering of Country Folk’’ evoked wonderful solo turns from clarinetist Eric Hoeprich and flutist Christopher Krueger, among others.
When it came time for speed, in the final Allegretto, the orchestra gave its best and played brilliantly. Norrington was a marvel of flexibility (he was a tenor once and has a vocalist’s sense of fluid line). Once considered a renegade, Norrington is now mainstream — but thanks to him, it’s a fresher stream.