REVIEW:Classical Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Roger Norrington

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The Independent Culture
For the past three years, the Vienna Phiharmonic Orchestra has been paying regular visits to London. This is a Rolls-Royce orchestra that purrs along, well tuned and oiled, with no hints of noxious emissions. Just occasionally a truly spectacular performance emerges (such as Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet last June) which suggests that the conductor (in this case Ozawa) may have some influence on engine performance. But, by and large, the VPO is an unstoppable vehicle with a marvellous sound, capable of extraordinarily loud dynamics and best left alone by meddling conductors.

Last week the Rolls-Royce visited London with Lorin Maazel driving. This quintessentially conservative orchestra presented an unorthodox programme: a symphony, a suite and a tone-poem. Schubert's early C minor symphony seemed caught in the mud: velvety strings to be sure, but hobbled - the orchestra was in no need of a driver. Stravinsky's 1919 version of The Firebird threw up all sorts of interesting colours - from a top-less Bosendorfer to a silky-smooth bassoon via an extraordinarily "fat" tuba. The volume of sound at the end of The Firebird threatened the eardrums.

How different then was the following night at the Barbican! Roger Norrington with his laboratory instrument, the London Classical Players, has been moving inexorably forward, cleaning the muck off as he goes. From Schutz and Monteverdi, Wagner and Bruckner - the stuff of the Vienna sound - are now firmly in his sights. And just to prove the danger, Norrington delivered a "health warning" to the audience before any musical proceedings began. Speeds, instruments, layout, the numbers of musicians and the style of playing are the keys to Norrington performances. The Meistersinger overture at Wagner's desired tempo of eight minutes has never sounded fresher: fast bows, "clucking" wind, and astonishing clarity in Wagner's complex contrapuntal overlapping. Melvyn Tan's fingers flitted like butterflies over the clanky keys of Johann Streicher's 1839 fortepiano in Weber's fiendishly tricky Konzertstuck - Tan's articulation is breathtaking, one- handed octave runs and all!

Given the presence of the Vienna Philharmonic in London, Norrington's choice of Bruckner's third Symphony seemed an almost deliberate cock a snook: it was the VPO that declared in 1873 this new symphony, the "Wagner", unperformable. Following two revisions, Bruckner conducted (apparently without authority) the 1877 premiere with the Vienna Philharmonic in a Vienna deeply antagonistic to Wagner. In true "new music" fashion, the audience left in droves and, as Bruckner took a bow, the orchestra deserted the platform.

One of Norrington's most impressive virtues is his interest in rescuing and re-presenting music "damaged" in (or by) the past. Bruckner, through whatever insecurity, subjected this symphony to numerous rewritings. Certainly the work is of enormous length (an hour), but given today's musical perspective - with almost constant exposure to Mahler's symphonies - and Norrington's immaculate attention to the pacing, phrasing and dynamics of Bruckner's deeply repetitive thematic style, the piece's gigantic structure holds together completely convincingly.

Thrilling was the antiphonal answering between the choruses of horns and trumpets and trombones, splendidly separated across the Barbican's wide stage; touching the serene string opening of the Adagio second movement; intriguing the snatches of Tristan and Meistersinger woven into the texture. Surely a cycle of Bruckner symphonies is due. Norrington with the Vienna Philharmonic?