Antidote to the False Glamour

After a long interval Sir Roger Norrington conducts again in Budapest. The eighty-three year old British conductor, known for his much discussed approach to performance, the first to record all Beethoven’s symphonies with the original tempo markings, conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a Mozart programme. In an interview given to the BSF magazine, he speaks of Wagnerian music from space, and his continued insistence on a pure string tone.

Sir Roger Norrington, photo by Manfred Esser

In 1978 you founded the London Classical Players, an orchestra playing on period instruments. The name suggests that in contrast to the practice of earlier historical ensembles, you concentrated on Classical works rather than Baroque.

We also began to experiment with the works of earlier composers. After Gabrieli and Monteverdi came Händel and Bach, and the series naturally continued with the Classical composers. As well as the question of instruments, we were concerned with things such as how big the orchestra should be, how the seating should be arranged, what kind of tuning we should use. Based on these considerations, we started playing Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, and Wagner. I used the same principles when we worked on the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, and I was especially keen that the musicians should not use vibrato. Naturally, I am always happy to revisit Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Can Wagner be treated the same way as the others?

The same way, as Brahms, for instance. It’s exciting to hear Wagner on period instruments. The tempi are far, far more animated than what we have become accustomed to. In the 1990s we recorded a CD of Wagner excerpts: on this, the Prelude to Die Meistersinger sounds more like the overture to a comic opera. With this approach Wagner’s works sound like music, not like something that comes from another planet. I’ve never heard a singer whose performance of Wagner convinced me. The instrument of a singer is his or her own body, and the use of it is much more difficult to change.

You were one of the first to consistently insist on the metronome markings in the score in your Beethoven interpretations. Many folk questioned your solutions, because they felt that these markings were contradictory.

I don’t think I’m in a position to answer the question. For me it is entirely natural to choose the tempi on the basis of the markings in the score. A few weeks ago in Helsinki I conducted the Ninth, then the Eroica with the Stuttgart orchestra, in the way I always have done. In fact, if I listen to Beethoven symphonies on the radio, I find that others too are increasingly following the composer’s indications. There is much less slow, boring Beethoven to be heard today.

The symphonies were recorded with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra too, and released on CD. Is there a difference between the way you conduct a modern orchestra and one using period instruments?

There’s no difference, it’s the sound that is slightly different. The tempiare the same, the gestures are the same, the interpretation matches too. The main thing is the basic concept of the music. Today 95 per cent of the orchestras I conduct are modern – that’s why it is such a pleasure to return to my old friends, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and hear the sound of period instruments.

You have a strong opinion on vibrato, which has made a mark on the sound of modern orchestras since the 1930s. Have your views changed?

Not in the slightest. I have conducted fifteen to twenty modern orchestras recently in various places in the world, from America to London, from Helsinki to Berlin, and they were all delighted to play with a straight tone. This is very important not just in the case of Mozart and Beethoven, but also for Brahms, Wagner, and Mahler. This is the basic language of the 19th century, and vibrato robs Classical music of its innocence. Joseph Joachim, who premiered Brahms’s Violin Concerto, in his 1904 book for soloists, wrote that if you constantly use vibrato, you show the world that you cannot play your instrument. He added that vibrato serves to substitute for “real emotion”, that should derive from a delicate handling of the bow, rather than the quivering of the left hand, which stops the strings. Vibrato is like a disease. Leopold Mozart, who published his violin method in 1766, wrote that some players use it all the time, and their hand shakes as though they had fever. Then in the 20th century everyone began to use it: the problem with it is that it ruins the natural overtones, and results in a kind of false glamour, which I call “going Hollywood”. The clarinets, trumpets, and horns do not use vibrato, mostly it is just the strings, to cover their false intonation.

Alongside two Mozart symphonies you are performing two horn concertos in the Müpa Budapest. In the latter the soloist will play on a period instrument, without valves. What makes these works interesting?

Because there are no valves on a natural horn, the player’s task is extremely difficult: he has to help the notes to sound by moving his right hand in the bell. This produces a very exciting sound, which I’m most fond of. Roger Montgomery, who also plays in the orchestra at the Royal Opera in Covent Garden, is a master of both the modern and natural horns. Mozart wrote the C major Symphony in four days in Linz, and the B flat major is played less frequently, in spite of being a very fine piece. Of my forty favourite Mozart symphonies, these are the two I am most fond of.

Good Vibrations?

“Something very personal and more or less instinctive” was what Simon Standage, a world-famous British violinist who often performs in Hungary, had to say about the musical effect in which the player produces periodic changes in the pitch and volume of the note. To this day the issue of vibrato sparks heated debate among string players. According to a study by Louis Cheslock and Carl Seashore, who studied the phenomenon, in producing vibrato some players use the finger and hand, while others tend to use the forearm or the upper arm, and it is considered artistic if the number of vibrations per second falls between 5 and 11. It became widespread thanks to the master teachers at the beginning of the 20th century, including the Hungarian Leopold Auer, who however did not cultivate excessive use of vibrato. And while Fritz Kreisler, whose playing pleased salon audiences, was turned down from the Vienna Philharmonic precisely because of his “excess” of vibrato, Heifetz, Milstein, and other pupils of Auer acquainted the world (heedless of their teacher’s protestations) with the ecstasy of constant vibration.

Péter Varga

This article first appeared in BSF Magazine, published by Budapest Spring Festival. To view the magazine in full, please click here.