SWR Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart at Cadogan Hall review ****

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SWR Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart, Sir Roger Norrington, Francesco Piemontesi (piano)

Cadogan Hall, 16th March 2018

Ludwig van Beethoven

  • The Creatures of Prometheus Overture, Op 43
  • Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op 37
  • Symphony No 3 in E flat major “Eroica”, Op 55

I guess the fashion for all Beethoven programmes began with LvB himself. Perhaps one of you clever musicologist types can tell me if this continued through the C19 and C20. In any event it is commonplace now. Makes sense really. Why would you want to dilute the maestro’s perfect work with the burblings of lesser mortals.

That master of Beethoven performance, Sir Roger Norrington, knows that and programmed accordingly as he brought the SWR Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart to the Cadogan Hall as part of the Zurich International Orchestra Series, Sir Roger was made Conductor Emeritus of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, which merged with the SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg in 2016, having led them from 1998 until 2011. This means that a fair few of this orchestra know him and his methods very well and it shows. And this is a fine orchestra make no mistake.

For those that don’t know Sir Roger made his name at the Kent Opera, and then his own London Classical Players, at the vanguard of historically informed performance. Minimal vibrato, strings not allowed to overwhelm the woodwind and strict adherence to the composer’s metronome marks, characterise his exquisite performances of Beethoven. That happens to be the way I like my Beethoven too. Not that syrupy, wobbly stodge filtered through the Romanticism of the second half of the C19 and the bombastic conducting of the first half of the C20. That means picking up the pace and pumping up the rhythm. His long association with the Stuttgart orchestra, and peers in Salzburg and Zurich, means that this is a modern orchestra fully in tune with his approach, able to deliver accurate “pure tone”. Mind you the fact that he still guest conducts at the ripe old age of 84 (this was his birthday – many happy returns) with some of the world’s most famous orchestras shows just how far the “right” way of playing has seeped into the mainstream for Beethoven and other Classical composers.

Now I am not going to lie. I can take or leave the Prometheus Overture. Beethoven churned out a fair few, 11 to be exact, Overtures for money, to accompany theatrical performances, with 4 linked to his only opera Fidelio and its first incarnation Leonore. Some get more of an airing than others, (anyone ever heard the Zur Namensfeier Overture?), and the general consensus is that a fair few are decidely ropey. The Creatures of Prometheus is Beethoven’s only ballet composed in 1801. I am not big on the ballet so I don’t know if this gets a regular airing but the Overture holds its own in the concert hall in part because it contains material that was later recycled into, yep, the Eroica Symphony and the Eroica Variations for piano. Delivered here with a bit of oomph which makes me a little less dismissive of this piece.

Our soloist for the PC3 was Swiss Francesco Piemontesi, protege of Alfred Brendel, who I confess was a new name for me. He has worked with this orchestra and Sir Roger before though and it showed. His piano was turned in, just like in 1800, with Sir Roger and his stool, (no score, no baton obvs), behind this which made for a different experience. In the Eroica we had the brass and wind players standing, outside the antiphonal strings and the double basses growling away at the back with the timp. Just another sign of Sir Roger rethinking the familiar. Anyway Mr Piemontesi was compelling especially in the faster, outer two movements. The pace at which the conductor takes this movements, and this layout, served him well and lent an interesting “slippery” quality to the concerto which was exciting. The Largo was maybe a bit too long on the power and short on the poetry but not annoyingly so. Encored with a bit of Brahms which furthered showcased his easygoing style.

The PC 3 was a great leap forward for Beethoven, (though maybe not quite as much as the Eroica), composed at the same time as that interesting but still “nice” Symphony No 2 and when he was still twiddling about with (admittedly still perfect) chamber pieces. Here is all that massive musical imagination bursting out, though still with some structural debt to Haydn and Mozart and specifically the latter’s C minor concerto No 24. The contrast with the weirdy E major in the slow movement is what makes you sit up and take notice.

The Eroica was similarly taken at a fair lick, even in the second movement funeral march. Crispy punchy strings acted as the perfect foil for woodwind detail and the horns especially in the scherzo and the trio. Is this Beethoven’s greatest work? Not sure, I still prefer Symphony No 7, but it doesn’t matter how many times you hear it still punches you in head, heart and gut. It is long yes, but the orchestral forces, as this orchestral layout reminds us, are no greater than normal for the time, just an extra horn. Yet from the off, in the first movement, LvB conjures up all manner of dissonances, surprises, syncopations and stresses to create drama and energy. Pop in a new tune halfway through like never before. Let the horn jump in too early. A timpani that cracks like wood on wood. Yet, in all this expectant momentum, even a non-musical person like the Tourist never loses the line, and when the resolutions come, its blessed relief. Even if it is just the woodwind really as we still have three more movements to come. I just can’t see how this mighty first movement makes sense played too slowly and without repeat.

A funeral march which basically defines all orchestral funeral marches, all grave and ominous, and then the switch to C major from minor for that jaunty episode telling us whoever died didn’t do so in vain. Always have to stop myself jumping up and saluting. Then after the second wave of death and glory the squeaky violins. Fade out. Under starters orders and we are off with the horsey scherzo with that lollop into 4/4. Another one of those brilliantly perfect ideas that no-one before would ever contemplate. Straight into the intro of the final movement with its opening tease, through about 6 symphonies inside one movement, until, bosh, the best ending to any LvB symphony.

This is a piece of cake for Sir Roger. Thomas Ades’s Eroica last year in the Barbican, as part of the cycle with the Britten Sinfonia, followed a similar template in terms of pace, power and animation but you definitely felt you had been in the ring for the full twelve rounds after that. Here Sir Roger was still able to unfurrow the brows of music and performers as it were, to leave me skipping off with a smile not a scowl. (Had to leave early to catch a train so missed the Mozart encore – doh).

As it happens the SO has seen Sir Rodger conduct on a couple of occasions, maybe 50% of her entire classical musical education. Still no reaction. If he can’t persuade her no-one can.

A diary clash prevents me from hearing Sir Rodger’s next outing with the OAE at the newly restored Queen Elizabeth Hall on 11th April. All Mozart. Mind you it’s sold out. No surprise there.

 

 

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