RSNO: Norrington (Usher Hall 21 Oct’ 2017)



Sir Roger Norrington
Photo: Alberto Venzago

“Sometimes good things come in small packages”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars


There was much more to Friday’s excellent RSNO/Roger Norrington gig than met the eye. Of course it was a thrill to be in the hands of the maestro of historically informed musical performance, last seen here at the Edinburgh Festival for his assured and thrilling Monteverdi performances, as well as for the reassurance of an evening’s accessible, if not easy listening, classical music. Yet we got so much more, namely an insight into the deceptively futuristic ahead-of-its-time works of Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.

The first question one was forced to ask oneself was, “When is a symphony not a symphony?” The initial work, Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale was originally titled Symphonette and played out in three movements in around 19 minutes. Both Prokofiev and Shostakovich wrote symphonies of lesser duration, the former at the beginning and the latter towards the end of their symphonic canon, so why the name change? In admittedly three movements rather than four, it was greater than the sum of its parts and was a satisfying, rounded piece developing all the way through towards a Finale: Allegro molto vivace that was recognisably mature Schumann as compared to its more Mozartian beginnings.

After the deftest of scene changes (only three first violin desks to move out of the way in this cut down band) to bring on the concert grand Steinway, Roman Rabinovich delighted us in a relaxed, assured and thrilling interpretation of Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 1 in G minor.   In an underrated work clearly ahead of its time – that reminded me of Brahms and Tchaikovsky a generation later  – we were treated to excellent solo and ensemble playing of a dramatic operatic opening followed by a strong melodic line and taut together playing under Norrington’s understated, enabling direction.

The evening concluded with Schumann’s Symphony No 1 in B flat minor (Spring). I cannot find any reference to Tchaikovsky being influenced by Schumann in his ground breaking fourth symphony but the opening two bars of the Spring symphony were near identical. The orchestra were sufficiently beefed up for this work to make one forget it was contemporaneous with the opening number. We went from two French horns to five, nought to three trombones and were full on for more than half an hour. The playing and direction were disciplined and effective with well-managed crescendos and an elaborate brass coda in the first movement. The band continued to provide a rich tone in the second, but in the elaborate and extended finale, following on a beautiful flute intervention, the brass gave into themselves showing tone a little coarsened by virtue of their evident enthusiasm. Never mind, this was joyous music making.

As I left the auditorium I noticed that I was leaving at the remarkably early hour of ten past nine. We had, in fact, just one and a quarter hours of music making when on a good night one can expect nearer two hours. Yet it was a well-put together programme and hard to see how it could have been justifiably fleshed out. Some times good things come in small packages.


Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 20 October)

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