Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Keith Bruce

four stars

AS entertaining and informative as conductor Sir Roger Norrington’s spoken introduction to his account of Beethoven’s Symphony No 3 was — and the Glasgow audience enthusiastically embraced his invitation to applaud between movements, as the composer’s public would have done — it did prompt thoughts about the precise place of historically-informed performance practice in the third decade of the 21st century.

In a weekend when the SCO’s concerts had demonstrated a much more relaxed attitude to the rigorous rules of the period music brigade, there was a suspicion that the game has moved on from Norrington’s injunctions on vibrato, tempo and balance.

Be that as it may, both conductors illustrated the truth of his assertion that the mid-20th century approach to Beethoven as “early Wagner” rather than “late Haydn, on good drugs” was misguided, and that the opening movement of the “Eroica” should not aim for sonic nobility but celebrate heroism in the battlefield sense. Likewise, Norrington’s second movement march was more a family funeral than a state occasion; with the wind, brass and timpani players all standing in a semi-circle around the small ensemble of strings this was a very compact RSNO, but acoustically the sound was a clear as I have heard in this hall.

Norrington’s period approach extended to the Debussy of the first half as well, which teamed the Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune — a work whose flute opening is surely in the top ten of universally-recognised beginnings alongside Beethoven’s Fifth — with the much less often heard Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra, unperformed at the composer’s death in 1918. It had the perfect advocate in Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, whose recording of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No.3 had been Kate Molleson’s Building a Library choice on BBC Radio 3 earlier on Saturday. The lightness of touch he brings to the work of both composers comes with stylistic panache and turbo-charged power available on tap. His expansive and joyous playing of Debussy’s jazz-tinged “energico” Finale was followed by a generous encore of L’isle Joyeux, the composer’s celebration of extra-marital sex in Jersey.