A bit of Beethoven, Berlioz, maybe even Brahms... but period Bruckner? You must be joking. Not Roger Norrington

Interview with Roger Norrington
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The Independent Culture
Roger Norrington doesn't look like a man who has recently undergone surgery to remove a brain tumour. Nor does he look like someone whose age is, as he wistfully puts it, "something with a six in it". When I met him at his Berkshire home in June he told me that he was "taking a lot of pills and taking each day as it comes". But as soon as I mentioned his forthcoming Wagner / Bruckner concert - then still several months ahead - all the familiar boyish enthusiasm surged back. Norrington can't claim to be the first conductor to tackle Wagner on period instruments (the New Queen's Hall Orchestra got there slightly ahead of him) but his is the first serious attempt to re-create the playing style of Wagner's own time. If the thought makes you gasp with horror, don't even think of protesting; the righteous indignation of others is fuel to Norrington's fire. As with that other great musical provocateur, Pierre Boulez, he seems to need it, perhaps as confirmation that he's doing the right thing.

There's one subject on which Norrington and Boulez are very much agreed: both have little time for the modern idealisation of "sound" as an end in itself. Boulez calls the sumptuous, homogenised modern orchestral sound "an undifferentiated pasta... a luxury consumer product". Norrington agrees. He quotes Beecham's famous affectionate swipe at British audiences who "don't know much about music but love the sound it makes".

"It isn't just the public," says Norrington; "it's a lot of performers too. Violinists, singers, flute players: they seem to be singing or playing into a mirror. There's a kind of narcissism. Conductors talk endlessly about sound being the first thing you've got to get right. It's dangerous for me to say this, but it's probably the thing I think about... no, not least, but well down the list. I concentrate on gesture, expression, movement, drama.

"Music isn't about sound, it's made with sound. When you hear a singer who's given a great Donna Anna or Euridice - I mean dramatically, musically great - and you get these people who can only talk about 'the voice' in that tone that reminds me of wine snobs, that infuriates me. I look for transparency, so that you can see through the performer to the heart of the music. One of the reasons people take music so slowly nowadays is because they want to squeeze the most out of the sound. I did it once. Not now!"

Quite. One of the things Norrington is famous (or is that infamous?) for is the speed of many of his performances. That isn't an end in itself either, he insists. But in Beethoven he has often taken the composer's hair-raisingly fast metronome markings at face value - where that's humanly possible, of course. He sets his face determinedly against a trend that has been growing since Otto Klemperer's "monumental" Beethoven of the 1960s. Like it or not, Norrington often has impressive historical evidence to back up what he does: if his Saturday-night Barbican performance of Wagner's Meistersinger overture takes, as planned, well under eight and a half minutes, that's still slower than the composer's written recommendation.

"He said a few seconds over eight minutes - that's fast! Most people take nine and a half to 10 minutes. Klemperer took 11 minutes 10 seconds - and it sounds great! But Wagner says he wants a bright, cheerful allegro in four beats, soon going into a swinging two. He says a few changes of tempo, but only slight. Where's the famous Mengelberg squeal of brakes? Have we been misled by Wagner's disciples - or, more likely, by Cosima Wagner's choice of his disciples?

"I actually can't do it as fast as Wagner says, but on our Wagner Day last year we got pretty close. I know that because we asked the audience to time it. Some of them were pretty indignant. But when we got to the end of the overture, I was thinking: I'd love to hear the whole opera done like that. It's supposed to be a comedy, for God's sake! It's about young love and spring and the defeat of aged, complacent traditionalism by youthful inspiration. Why does it have to be so solemn?"

What is it Hans Sachs says about Walther's "Prize Song" in Act 2 of Die Meistersinger - "It sounded so old and yet was so new"? One can see why that might appeal to Roger Norrington, pioneer of "The Shock of the Old". So, is there a chance we might see a complete Norrington Meistersinger one day? "Why not? The problem is getting the right voices. On our new EMI Wagner disc we've got Jane Eaglen singing Isolde's 'Liebestod' - very nicely, too. But it's not easy to find people like that. I'd love to find someone with as little vibrato as Lotte Lehmann - Wagner's first Eva - at least it's not the modern 'slap it on all over' vibrato. And the words are like crystal, they're so clear.

"You mentioned Boulez. I think he did a lot of good to Wagner, but the time may not have been right. Bayreuth certainly wasn't ready. It might become right, as it did with Beethoven. When I first thought of trying Beethoven on period instruments, I knew it wouldn't work. The name 'Klemperer' was written all over the music. Maybe it's still too soon for us to be doing Wagner - or Bruckner - but it feels good to us to be asking the questions, if not actually answering them."

And there is one of the most intriguing aspects of Norrington, one that makes him popular with large sections of the musical public, but which frustrates many of those who might otherwise have been his allies. As one noted period style-counsellor put it: "He jumps in, stirs everything up, then disappears off somewhere else." No staying power?

"Well... no. It's just me being me. I'm not part of a larger movement. I don't cohabit with other conductors - just performers. I do tend to do things before others. It's not a moral issue or a race. I'm just a pioneer. I love the risk - can you get across that plain without water? Today, there's this terrific opportunity to re-traverse the classics with these new instruments. I can remember the first Handel Messiah we did on 18th-century instruments. It was scary! We didn't know if it would work or if we were facing total disaster." But now it's... established? "Well, yes, I suppose it is. But if it had gone on being established in the way it was before, that would have been dreadful. Such a pall of musty traditionalism hung over Messiah in this country. Now it's different, freer."

In tomorrow night's Barbican concert Norrington will try something else that only very recently would have been a joke: Bruckner on period instruments. To be precise, Bruckner's Third Symphony, in its original 1873 version - longer and still more technically challenging than the revised score that apparently defeated the Vienna Philharmonic at the premiere in 1877. What can we expect from Norrington's performance?

"To be honest, I can't really tell you yet. So much depends on what we find out in rehearsal. But Bruckner's not really much harder than the Brahms symphonies we've just recorded, Nos 3 and 4, and the players seemed to sail through those. Of course, we use people who are interested in the more modern stuff - not Monteverdi specialists! I can't wait to hear Bruckner played on real Vienna horns, and then there are the trumpets - a much warmer, broader sound. But, for us, Bruckner is still full of unknowns. We'll try and get the parameters right first - the phrasing and the tempi - and see what kind of sound emerges. That's what happened with Brahms. But I couldn't bear it if I knew how it was all going to turn out in advance.

"I suppose it's the nearest I'll ever get to being a composer - no matter how good your ear, there are things you only find out when the thing's actually played in front of an audience. It could be a bit rough at the edges here and there, but I'm sure it'll be alive."

n Norrington conducts Wagner, Bruckner and Weber (Konzertstuck, with Melvyn Tan, piano): 7.30pm tomorrow, Barbican Hall, London EC2 (0171-638 8891)

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