Typical Program, Atypical Approaches

02.20.12
Jeremy Denk
The New York Times

By Vivien Schweitzer

The Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Carnegie Hall

On the surface, there seems nothing unusual about a program opening with a Haydn symphony and Beethoven’s oft-played Piano Concerto No. 1. But with the conductor Roger Norrington in charge, there were plenty of unconventional touches during the Orchestra of St. Luke’s concert on Thursday evening at Carnegie Hall.

For Mr. Norrington, who has a long relationship with this excellent ensemble (he served as its music director from 1990 to 1994), vibrato is the trans fat of music: an unhealthy ingredient to be eliminated. It’s an aesthetic that has ruffled feathers over the years, particularly when applied to works outside the Classical and Baroque canon, like those of Elgar.

But while vibrato-free Romantic works can sound bizarre, especially on first hearing, Mr. Norrington’s pure-tone approach rendered the outer movements of Haydn’s Symphony No. 39 in G minor fleet and buoyant. Haydn often used silence as a musical device to heighten suspense and humor, as in the opening Allegro assai of this work, his earliest minor-key symphony and one of many works he wrote at the Esterhazy court. Mr. Norrington elicited vividly etched phrasing in the first movement and a bright, clean sound throughout. The strings played the racing scales in the finale with nimble flair.

But even genius composers produce some uninspired music, like this symphony’s dutiful Andante and Menuet, which sounded rather severe. The brasses and winds stood while performing, here and in the Beethoven concerto, which came next.

Mr. Norrington chose an unusual stage configuration for that work; the pianist, Jeremy Denk, played with his back to the audience, and Mr. Norrington (who conducted without score or baton throughout the evening) stood behind the pianist, facing the auditorium. The strings sat with their chairs partly turned away from the audience.

Nor was there anything routine about this exciting interpretation. Mr. Norrington clearly wanted to surprise listeners; the striking harmonic emphasis in two cadences in the first movement was so unexpected that it sounded jarring.

On previous visits to Carnegie Hall, Mr. Norrington’s vision has sounded at odds with the soloist’s, but here he had a willing collaborator in Mr. Denk, whose idiosyncratic, colorful rendition matched the ensemble’s distinctive approach. Mr. Norrington encouraged applause after Mr. Denk stormed with aplomb through Beethoven’s long, wild cadenza.

Another highlight of the evening was the spirited, straightforward interpretation of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E flat. There were no surprises here, just gracious and elegant playing.