By Lawrence Budmen

A decade ago Sir Roger Norrington’s recorded cycle of Beethoven symphonies set the music world ablaze. Conducting a period instrument ensemble, Norrington respected the composer’s previously disputed tempo and dynamic markings and changed the interpretive spectrum of Beethoven performances. In his local debut with the New World Symphony on Saturday at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach, Norrington led equally revelatory performances of the music of Robert Schumann. 

The conductor utilized a historically informed seating plan (used by Mendelssohn with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra) with divided violins, horns and trumpets on opposite sides of the stage, and double basses across the entire rear of the ensemble. Strings and winds dispensed with vibrato, making distinctive instrumental timbres newly audible. 

Under Norrington’s masterful baton, Schumann emerged as a true musical revolutionary rather than the tame romantic of more mundane performances. The conductor’s brisk reading of the Symphony No.2 in C Major revealed the score’ s dissonance and harmonic ambiguities. Never a dogmatic interpreter, Norrington responded to Schumann’s shifting emotional extremes with the volatility of a Furtwangler. The ruminative Adagio espressivo became an impassioned outcry of the ailing composer while the finale resounded as a jubilant return to life. 

Norrington’s reading astutely balanced the score’s reverential homage to Bach with the music’s tempestuous foretelling of Mahlerian angst. The New World musicians’ exuberant playing propelled this freshly minted view of the symphony. Schumann’s music emerged newly bold and daring like finely aged wine in new bottles. 

Pianist Robert Levin brought Chopinesque elegance and sensitivity to Schumann’s Concerto in A minor. Levin is a musical renaissance man – musicologist, Mozart scholar, master of the (Mozart era) fortepiano, humanities professor at Harvard, and artistic director of the Sarasota Music Festival. His artistic intelligence, lithe articulation, and limpid tone illuminated every bar of this poetic masterpiece, with a self effacing virtuosity that emphasized musical insight over shallow pianistic display. With Norrington fielding Schumann’s original orchestral complement (including only eight first and second violins), the performance had the exquisite clarity and intimacy of chamber music. 

As a curtain raiser, Norrington led a bracing account of the Overture to Genoveva with the urgency, muscularity, and heroic nobility of Beethoven.  

Copyright Sun-Sentinel


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