Music Weekends Make an `Experience'

`THE L"andler should be ... romantic,'' says Roger Norrington, addressing the London Classical Players, in rehearsal with their period instruments for the weekend ``Mozart Experience'' at Queen Elizabeth Hall here. The run-through of Mozart's ``Deutsche Tanz,'' K. 600, No. 4, had been light and sparkling, but Mr. Norrington was unsatisfied, and gave his forces a mini-lecture on the role of dancing in 18th-century Vienna. The women used to dance ``even when pregnant; they had special rooms set aside,'' he says.

Norrington lifts his hands, the strings their bows. ``And, with a smile at your partner,'' he urges, and the piece is suddenly endowed with vigorous, full-blooded life.

So it was with the other items Norrington prepared: The slow movement of Mozart's ``Clarinet Concerto'' was played with an aching beauty by Lesley Schatzberger on an extended-range basset horn (clarinet). It was accompanied by an orchestral corps playing in sympathy the first time around, but in organic and sublime symbiosis on the second take. In one of the most extraordinary items on the program, Norrington drew a dark, haunting sound from an ensemble that included three brooding basset horns in the ``Mauerische Trauermusik,'' K. 477, a work of intense lyricism.

Norrington's sold-out ``Experiences'' have become an established part of London's musical life, drawing capacity crowds for whole weekends of immersion in a particular composer and a particular work. Norrington began the weekends in 1985 because he thought ``what is most missing is all the input which we put in, in rehearsals, all the research I do.''

But as well as being educational, the Experience is meant to be fun. ``When you arrive there, you're given a free program, and there's an exhibition you can look at - two exhibitions, in fact; and usually there's some music playing. So there's a kind of feeling of it being an occasion, not a concert.''

On Saturday evenings there is an open rehearsal, which, Norrington says, ``people usually like better than anything else we do. They just love feeling that they're on the inside, sharing what we're trying to do.''

The ``Beethoven Experience,'' to be repeated this summer at the Pepsico Festival in Purchase, N.Y., focuses on the ``Ninth Symphony,'' combining several concerts and talks which explore the artistic climate of 1824, the year the symphony was first performed. The weekend culminates with a sing-along to the final movement of the ``Ninth Symphony,'' a final concert of the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, and waltzing by the audience in the foyer.

The recent ``Mozart Experience'' focused on ``The Magic Flute'' and on 1791, Mozart's last year. The ``Clarinet Concerto'' was completed that year, as were the dances Norrington performed. The bittersweet depths of ``The Magic Flute'' and the contagious ebullience of the concerto can both be found in ``The Magic Flute.'' The ``Trauermusik'' was composed earlier, but it is a work of Masonic metaphor and so it, too, is linked to the opera: ``That piece [``Trauermusik''] sounds rather like a funeral march for Sarastro,'' says Norrington. And so the weekend progresses, the audience increasingly understanding the context and becoming involved in the spirit of the opera with which the Experience ends.

WHILE Norrington does not label his performance ``authentic,'' he does call it ``historically aware.'' In some cases, this has controversial results, especially in the tempi of Norrington's recordings of Beethoven, which will include the complete symphonies and piano concerti. Norrington claims that finding out about tempo ``isn't very difficult in Beethoven's case, because he happens to have written it down; you have metronome marks.''

These markings imply much faster performances of many movements than have been traditionally adopted, but Norrington insists that ``they're not extraordinary tempi. ... When you look at a Beethoven andante, put your thumb over the metronome mark so you can't see it and say to yourself: `This is a bit of late Haydn, late Mozart, what speed would it go?' and you've been training yourself to get the gesture right: out comes Beethoven's metronome mark.'' The other thing is we have several letters which say how important the metronome is. He [Beethoven] thought the ``Ninth Symphony'' had done well in Berlin because the metronome had been used and he thought his works would only live because the metronome would tell people how to play them.''

Norrington's most recently released recordings of the Beethoven Symphonies No. 1 and 6 show Norrington's belief in practice, but to different effect. The ``First Symphony,'' written during the winter of 1799-1800, was very much a creature of the 18th century, and Norrington's clean, deft handling makes for an exhilarating performance: The fast speeds lend the work freshness and agility, while preserving an inner coherence.

The same is not true of the ``Pastoral.'' The ``Scene by the Brook'' movement does have beautiful playing on both strings and winds; the ``Storm and Tempest'' is exciting, especially because of the sharply focused sound of tympani beaten with hard sticks. But the remainder of the work sounds rushed, with no time allowed to explore and enjoy details. The simple melody of the opening movement, for example, flashes by at breakneck speed. Phrases which are smoothly lyrical - in, for example, Bernard Haitink's recent recording with the Concertgebouw Orchestra - are fired off by Norrington volley-style and clipped short.

In justification, Norrington insists that ``you can attend to the music at great pace, like a racing driver attending to the race course.'' But this was not the pace at which Beethoven encountered the countryside. Schindler, Beethoven's companion on country walks, describes how, ``As we walked along the pleasant grassy valley ... Beethoven frequently stopped and, filled with happy feelings of rapture, let his gaze wander over the beautiful landscape.''

There are questions, also, about what Beethoven - deaf - meant the metronome marks to indicate. Telephone calls to three contemporary American composers elicited some revealing responses. Avram David says composers hear their music ``in an idealized acoustical inner space in which problems of actual physical circumstances such as different degrees of reverberation and other factors are not present, and in which we can hear very clearly what we wish.... Stravinsky, for one, by his own testimony, myself for another, find that careful consideration is needed to adjust tempi to what one really wants, and the real acoustic situation indicates slower tempi than one tends to hear in one's mind.... The deaf Beethoven did not have the chance to make this adjustment, and that's why I think it's probably not correct to take these tempi of Beethoven's as gospel.''

PETER CHILD also stressed that the score did not lay down the final word: ``It's fluid, and sometimes performances suggest things. It'll be something I didn't think was possible. Speaking for myself, I hate it when performers are fetishistic about the metronome. With these performers, I frequently have to say I'm sorry I wrote that: This is what I want.''

Aram Gharabekian, a conductor as well as a composer (he and his orchestra, SinfoNova of Boston, recently received the Wuslin Performance Award for Large Ensembles from National Public Radio) also has doubts about the metronome, ``the most unmusical instrument.'' He agrees that ``for a composer who hears the music in his head, there is a tendency to put everything very fast, very quick,'' but says that not only is there a difference between a performance in the mind and on the concert platform, but between performances under different circumstances.

``You can go to [an acoustically] very dry hall,'' he says. ``Next evening you perform in a church. Are you going to do exactly the same tempo? If you do it, you're dead, because nothing can be heard.''

There is, in short, no set valid metronome speed at which to take a work, and physical time should only be the end product of an attempt to create a work-in-performance, not the starting point.

Gharabekian also complains about the lack of sentiment in early-instruments recordings such as Norrington's, which he sees as a phenomenon of 20th-century society as a whole, guided as it is by formalisms and eschewing emotion. This theme was taken up during a telephone interview with Richard Taruskin, professor of music at the University of California, Berkeley, and a prominent commentator on ``authentic'' performance.

He says that Norrington's performance is not of Beethoven's age, but ``is an authentic voice of the 20th century, because he performs to the 20th-century performance tradition, which is rigid adherence to tempo. ... The 20th-century attitude about rigid maintenance of tempo is so paramount; literalism takes the composer at the letter of his word, and the letter compelleth the spirit.''

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