Roger Norrington and The NSO, Unwavering

By Daniel Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 13, 2005

Roger Norrington is a strongly opinionated maestro. The British conductor has vigorously argued that all conductors and musicians should stop using vibrato -- the warbling of a tone to inject greater richness and warmth. In his view, if ensembles would just stop all the throbbing, music would have greater clarity and regain what he has called its "innocence." Last evening at the Kennedy Center, Norrington guest-conducted the National Symphony Orchestra, providing a good chance to see whether his approach pays real dividends.

Though the performances of symphonies of Franz Schubert and Anton Bruckner had much to admire and respect, the NSO should not rush to change anything drastically. It was fascinating to hear each masterwork played in such a tailored, clear and quick-tempo manner. Yet occasionally lost in the fleetness and charm were expression, weight and sheer sound.

Norrington has been an active field marshal in the early music movement, which applies historical scholarship to replicate the sound of a composer's music in its original performance. In the often revelatory interpretations, highly flexible tempos and extreme dynamic contrasts give way to this quicker, leaner, less syrupy sound. Norrington has taken this trimmer style beyond the movement's typical bastions of the baroque and early classical repertoire into the less-charted field of 19th-century romantics.

Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony No. 8, D. 759, which has lost much of its mystery and luster from routine performances, could use some polish, and Norrington's swift, detailed approach revealed underlying colors and phrases. The music gained energy as the themes developed, though rarely exploding in force. The tender but temperamental second movement was similarly well proportioned and shapely, with several beautifully crafted woodwind solos jumping out of the textures.

It was in the reading of the rarely heard original 1874 version of Bruckner's Symphony No. 4 in E-flat that one started thirsting for greater expansiveness and gravitas. Square rhythms and blazingly fast tempos sapped the music of its sense of openness and freedom. Yet, in the slower second movement, Norrington prepared some wonderfully clear and resounding climaxes, flecked with earthy woodwind and string colors. Muted yet strong brass passages in the Scherzo were matched only by the rich strings and enormous outburst of the Finale.

In taking on the leaner sound so apparently easily, the NSO showed enormous versatility and technical skill. Because the sound is so much thinner, the smallest problem -- an uneven attack or funky intonation -- can stick out like a sore thumb. Yet each section demonstrated fine ensemble, balance and precision. Who would have thought that this typically full-bodied ensemble could convincingly parade as a baroque performing group?

At the end of the evening, the concert merely pointed out the obvious: There is no absolutely "right" way to perform music, and there are as many valid interpretations as there are intelligent conductors. Norrington's musicmaking was certainly not to every taste, nor necessarily superior to the grander style. Yet the maestro deserves enormous credit for presenting his always interesting musical ideas.

The concert repeats this afternoon and Saturday evening.

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