The period performance pioneer talks to Hugo Shirley about his breakthrough Beethoven recordings, singing for Klemperer and challenging tradition
One of many remarkable things you learn talking to Sir Roger Norrington is how little this apparent iconoclast has changed his views over the decades. It's some 35 years since he started releasing his groundbreaking cycle of Beethoven symphonies – not the first on period instruments, but arguably one of the most influential series of recordings ever made – but the ideas and decisions that informed the venture have barely changed.
When he came to re-record the works in Stuttgart some 15 years later, he recalls being asked: "What's going to be your new take on Beethoven?" The answer, he tells me, was: "just the same as before!" He elaborates: "If you've found out everything you found out about how this should go, you don't have to change it. You don't have to have a brand new philosophy every time you perform it. So of course the tempi in the Stuttgart performances are the same: they're Beethoven's tempi!"
That's a statement, delivered with the combination of twinkling charm and unflinching conviction familiar from Norrington's platform manner, that is likely to have musicologists unleashing a tirade of "buts" and other musicians piping up with myriad objections.
Norrington is unrepentant. But does he ever doubt his approach? "You take the doubt with you in a closely sealed suitcase," he confides. And he recalls vividly what a risk that approach was at the start, what a leap of imagination it required – especially for a conductor who, in his youth, had sung the Missa Solemnis and Beethoven's Ninth under the venerable Otto Klemperer. "It was amazingly slow and very wonderful," Norrington admits of Klemperer's performances. "But when I looked at the score it wasn't what it said. We've got to do something about this, I thought."
He'd been brought up on the Toscanini recordings of the symphonies – "luckily he's fairly nippy, so I quite liked that" – and had conducted them with various orchestras before embarking on the ground-breaking project with the London Classical Players. "I'd worked out how they needed to go, but it was still hugely scary in a way, and luckily EMI had enough people who really wanted to do it."
Nevertheless the initial commitment from the record company was limited. "We started with the first record, Symphonies Nos. 2 and 8, and they more or less said: 'If you want to do another, you'll have to pay for it yourself.' But by the time they'd heard the rough cuts, they said, 'Ok, we can do another!'"
That first album was reviewed in the pages of Gramophone in early 1987 alongside new Beethoven symphony recordings by Ricardo Muti and Claudio Abbado – the ‘80s were nothing if not boom time for Beethoven cycles. The reviewer welcomed it as "the most interesting and enjoyable new record of a Beethoven symphony I've heard for some time." Later the same year it won a coveted Gramophone Award. "We sold 40,000 copies in the first year," Norrington notes with justified pride: "The public loved them. And of course it was that moment where everyone was just moving to CD. It became hot, and they've never been out of the catalogue."
Indeed, they were released at a time of remarkable change, when the more "old-school" approaches of the Mutis and Abbados of the world suddenly – for better or worse – seemed to many to sound simply old-fashioned. Such perceptions tell a highly complex story, and it wasn't long before the musicologist Richard Taruskin began to pick apart the ideology of the period performance movement, arguing that it told us more about our time than that of the composers being performed. Taruskin, however, remained full of praise for Norrington's recordings. In a famous essay he referred to Norrington's "inspired literalism", writing that the conductor and his players "[keep] the promise of authenticity in ways their colleagues and competitors, most of them, have not begun to imagine".
Taruskin's essay, "The New Authenticity", was originally published in 1987 (and republished in his 1995 book Text and Act), and there have of course been many further cycles of Beethoven's symphonies since; the musical landscape now accommodates the broadest variety of approaches. Norrington acknowledges this wryly. "A few of the honest ones say, 'I learned a lot from Roger Norrington's recordings'. I mean, Simon Rattle does in his sleeve notes."
He still looks back fondly on the sense of discovery that informed those first recordings. "The first time was really very exciting. That sense of creativity, where you have to decide how to do it. What's going to happen if you do that? How are you going to play that bit? I was mainly using players who played a lot of Baroque music; they hadn't played a lot of Classical. So it was like it was for Beethoven's players in his day: they hadn't played Beethoven before either, only Haydn and Mozart a bit. So we had the same sense of discovery, of people fighting with technical challenges."
Norrington's approach was very much rooted in the desire to approach Beethoven not from a 19th-century vantage point, but in terms of his predecessors. "He's an 18th-century composer who strayed into the 19th-century," the conductor says. "He's Haydn on drugs! It's not early Wagner; it's late Haydn." He moves on to a more general point about the 19th century's reception of Beethoven and his predecessors.
"Beethoven is the beginning of the repertoire, the first composer of symphonies whose music never went out of the concert hall. Because they'd been there, in the repertoire, since 1830, they got changed the most, so gradually the elastic got thinner and more stretched." He talks me through, with much animated humming, da-da-da-ing and pom-pom-ing, the way he found the character of so many of the symphonies' movements changed when taken at the specified speeds.
"The 'Eroica' at 60 [beats per minute] is not far away, but it's just not the same piece. And the Eighth! We talk about whether it's possible or not – it's actually virtually impossible to do the first movement – but the idea is there." He sings the opening bars of that work. "It's incredibly fast, and orchestras always get slower, but at least you can start at the right speed! That's been the glorious result: that you can take each composer and really try and find out what they wanted, what defines them, not try and make them like anyone else."
"Slow movements" are, naturally, a point of particular contention: "All this music doesn't have to go through the same mincer that says that all second movements are slow. A lot of them aren't! Beethoven Seven, for instance. It isn't even marked slow: it's marked 'allegretto'." He sings the movement's familiar melody as a spritely, light "da da-da da da" and then as a leaden, exaggerated "bwaah bwah-bwah bwaah bwaah" to demonstrate. "It's another world, so it was very exciting to be able to get that out!"
After Beethoven, Norrington applies a similar approach to the works of later composers. "Of course we did the same with Berlioz and with Schumann. And with Brahms and with Mahler, re-examining every aspect: number of players, how they sat on the stage, tempo, sound, should there be vibrato or not. The kinds of instruments of course as well, if you can do it, but you can also do it with modern orchestras and do almost everything the same. if you have any interest in the past, in the humanity of the past, in your ancestors and what it was like, you want to know how it was then."
Talking to Norrington now, it's difficult not to be swept away by the conviction of his "inspired literalism", not least because it's iconoclasm laced with affection. "Furtwängler is fascinating," he notes, pointing out that he heard him conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in Schubert's Ninth shortly after the war. "They came to England and I was lucky enough to see them. Of course, I can't remember much about it, but I was very impressed with it. He was wonderful, amazing. He was a composer, of course, so he kind of recomposed these pieces, and, at that time, they thought that's what you should do. After all, Mahler spent months recomposing Schumann's symphonies – what a waste of time! They sound better without Mahler."
This leads him to two different traditions: that of the composer and that of recordings. "Recording tradition is various people's ideas, including mine." But he's clear which is the most important. "I met some young conductors once who said they weren't interested in history. 'You must understand, Sir Roger,' they said, 'that records are now part of the score. When you look at the score, what recordings have to say about it is important.' Well it's not important to me! They're important to them, because they haven't got the imagination or the equipment to do what the composer wanted. I find that most extraordinary."
Nor does Norrington have much patience for those who don't share his historical curiosity. "They also said: 'you wouldn't read Mahler's letters to discover how to play his music, would you?" I said: 'I've read every one!' Of course you would; I wanted to know what he thought was going on. They said: 'It's just you and the score.' Well, no! It's you and the score and history, because all this music is history! Even Vaughan Williams, even Britten."
The veteran conductor drops in another impressive link to his own past. "I happened to know Britten and to hear his performances, but you need to know how people were playing then and why. Anyone who's really interested in these composers surely must want to know how they wanted the music to be heard.
"And on this 40 year escapade, I've just been constantly stunned by how marvellous it sounds when you do what it says on the tin!"
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