Like a powerful and refreshing cleansing agent, the sound of Roger
Norrington’s London Classical Players swept through the Dorothy Chandler
Pavilion at the Music Center on Sunday night. It lit lights in the dark
corners, clearing out the accumulated sludge of years of Strauss and
Sibelius. It cleaned out the ears, as well, of a near-capacity audience, and
left them cheering at the end.
The LCP is one of London’s many groups dedicated to playing bygone music on
the instruments of that music’s own time, and with some attempt at recreating
performance practices of the time. Most groups stick to 18th-century music,
butNorrington has taken his ensemble farther afield. They are currently well
along in an invasion of the 19th century. Their latest record is of Schumann
Sunday’s program represented a recent stage in that invasion. It consisted of
symphonies by Beethoven and Schubert (the Fourth, in each case), Beethoven’s
“Egmont” Overture and a Rossini tidbit (the “Signor Bruschino” Overture)
as encore. Even confined to a single decade (1806-16), there was enough
variety to underscore the strengths and weaknesses of Norrington’s musical
Beyond question, he thrives on controversy. Journals here and abroad delight
in huge spreads on the authentic-performance question, and Norrington’s name
invariably turns up as hero and/or villain. And so he did on this occasion.
The Schubert Fourth, the first stirrings of romanticism in the teenage
composer’s orchestral work, was not so much performed as shaken for dear
life. The performance wasted no time on affection; it sped along, ignoring
the specified repeats in the first movement and finale (and then inserting
unspecified repeats in the Minuetto). Sure, the wind solos, played on genuine
wood instruments, were ravishing, and so was the over-all blend of winds,
strings strung with gut not steel, and the authentically brassy brass. The
sound was there, but Schubert was not.
As bad as was the Schubert, so splendid was the Beethoven Fourth, from its
slow, spaced out opening (a vista of distant stars) to its giggling,
breakneck finale. Maybe it was what Beethoven intended, maybe not; we’ll
never know. But it was an exhilarating tracing of the published notes of
Beethoven’s score, and that’s all we can expect from any performance,
authentic or otherwise.
The whole question becomes silly, in any case. Here we had music played by a
Beethoven-sized orchestra (50-or-so players), in a hall ten times larger than
any that Beethoven knew, for an audience with 20th-century tastes and
expectations, and with the inauthentic spectacle of a flamboyant (but
talented) conductor out front. All you can really expect from Norrington, or
his fellow practitioners of the art of musical resuscitation, is a series of
speculative essays on what might certain masterpieces from the past might
have sounded like when new.
The one authentic and indestructible quality in music is beauty. As long as
that survives in the playing of such groups as Roger Norrington’s LCP, other
questions become irrelevant.