The results have often proved startling; Norrington’s EMI recording of the Ninth, which observes all the second-movement repeats specified in Beethoven’s score, runs nine minutes faster than the more traditional Bruno Walter performance.
Yet Norrington has history on his side; availing himself of the newly invented Metronome, Beethoven left specific tempo indications for most of his major scores, and most of them are far faster than the typical orchestral performances one hears today. More important than mere fidelity to the letter and number of Beethoven’s intent, Norrington makes the music work at these “authentic” breakneck speeds, particularly in the hair-raising momentum of the first movement and the demonic onrush of the scherzo.
At the Bowl, as at his indoor concerts, he seated the orchestra in the classic formation, first and second violins down front and cellos behind them on the conductor’s left. Even through the Bowl’s iffy amplification, there was a palpable gain in clarity, the give-and-take across and through the string textures, from this restored arrangement.
It was a concert, therefore, of surprise and revelation, and this also extended to the program’s opener, Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, in which Emanuel Ax’s customary eloquence was not at all ruffled by Norrington’s (and Beethoven’s) unusually speedy tempo in the slow movement. In the finale of the Ninth, three full-size choruses took part, creating a resonant blur more in line with more modern performance practice.
A rather wobbly initial entrance by bass Gregg Baker set the tone for merely so-so work by the vocal quartet.
As usual, there was applause between movements of the symphony. Not at all annoyed, however, Norrington acknowledged the reaction, sending out the message that such relaxed audience behavior is also part of the “authenticity” of Beethoven’s time and place.