Sir Roger Norrington & Albrecht Mayer
With the Zurich Chamber Orchestra

Tonhalle Zurich, 2014-11-25

3-star rating

2014-12-05 — Original posting
2016-07-29 — Brushed up for better readability


Roger Norrington and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra

A month ago, we could hear the Zurich Chamber Orchestra (Zürcher Kammerorchester, ZKO) as baroque formation, playing with period instruments. This time, the ensemble presented compositions by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, under its principal conductor, Sir Roger Norrington. For this concert, modern instruments were in use: 5 + 5 + 4 + 3 + 2 strings, two oboes, two horns in the case of the Mozart’s Symphony No.4. After a more “strictly historic phase” (e.g., with the London Classical Players), Norrington has in recent years been working with ensembles with modern instruments (e.g., as conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, 1998 – 2011). But of course he is still doing proper research using the original sources. And he uses the findings from historically informed playing (HIP), questioning traditions (a.k.a. bad habits) that have evolved over the past 200 years.

So, he is not using big formations for classical works written for small orchestras. Vibrato is used extremely sparingly, if at all. The articulation is light and transparent, avoiding an excess of legato playing. Under Norrington, all this sounds so natural that most listeners may not even notice. It’s certainly never dry and frugal, as some might expect — quite to the contrary! The predominant impression from this concert (definitely supported by the excellent acoustics of the Tonhalle) was that of a warm, rounded and harmonious sound.


Mozart: Symphony “No.4” in D, K.19

The first composition in the program, the Symphony “No.4” in D, K.19, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) is actually the composer’s second symphony. The numbering is not Mozart’s, and the symphonies No.2 and 3 turned out not to be authentic. This symphony is authentic, however. Though, thanks to research, the notation in the first movement has undergone some significant changes recently. The New Mozart Edition (1984) revealed that there are no ties in the first two bars. This alters the character of the main theme in this movement (see my post “Mozart: Symphony in D, K.19” for details). Needless to say that Norrington uses that updated notation. Mozart composed this at the age of 9 — at a time when he was still imitating the style of other composers. Many form features are still short, fragmentary.

Yet, he could not resist adding a surprise: a sudden fp syncope in unison (A#) in bar #47 (after a cadence in A major), followed by two bars in B minor. With Norrington, this fp surprise was not only fairly pronounced, but followed by a “shock break”. One could vividly imagine the effect that this must have had on the audience in 1766! The last movement of this symphony is pretty amazing. It requires a lot of virtuosity and excellent coordination in the orchestra.

The Zurich Chamber Orchestra mastered this without problem, even though Norrington’s direction was mostly just shaping / highlighting phrases. Too bad there was no harpsichord (at Mozart’s time, orchestras were directed from the harpsichord). There were also no natural horns — but the modern valve horns sounded rather bright, yet never too conspicuous, let alone dominating. So, one could hardly call this a “historic deficiency”.

Mozart: Oboe Concerto in C major, K.314

The Oboe Concerto in C major, K.314 is also known in a version for transverse flute in D major. In this concert, the soloist was Albrecht Mayer, first oboist with the Berlin Philharmonic. Mayere is also pursuing an international career as soloist, and he is also conducting his own ensemble. Already the orchestral introduction was full of “speaking” articulation and phrasing. The soloist played with light tone, avoiding excessive legato. He commands over a large dynamic bandwidth, his intonation is very clear — as one would expect from a modern French oboe). I particularly liked the cadenzas, which were full of fantasy and vitality (there are no original cadenzas for this concerto). I was also pleased with the natural treatment of the many appoggiaturas in the solo part.

Encore — J.S. Bach: Sinfonia to Cantata BWV 156, “Ich steh’ mit einem Fuß im Grabe”

The audience offered a long applause — which Albrecht rewarded with three encores, each introduced by the soloist. The first encore, the Sinfonia to Bach’s Cantata BWV 156, “Ich steh’ mit einem Fuß im Grabe” is a very touching piece, going straight to the listener’s heart. It’s almost a bit unfair towards the preceding concerto.

Mozart: Symphony No.40 in G minor, K.550

The last position in the program (after the intermission) was Mozart’s Symphony No.40 in G minor, K.550, in its original form. That first version does not feature clarinets. Sir Roger Norrington could not resist giving some explanations, in English. He first alluded to numeric relations between this evening’s two symphonies (No.4 vs. No.40 — second vs. second-to-last symphony). He then referred to the fact that K.550 is overused, known too well even, and heard in warehouses and escalators, as background music. But then, he pointed out that what people remember is not really what Mozart composed. He explained the dramatic, desperate, tragic atmosphere in this composition — then inevitably moved on to one of his favorite topics: the tempo. His final recommendation: “Fasten your seat belts — this is a dangerous world out there!”.


Indeed, the Molto allegro in the first movement — properly read as alla breve — felt much faster than usual. Norrington made people forget how worn out, almost boring this music typically sounds. The conductor didn’t really specify the beat, but merely modeled the contours of the composition with his bare hands. He paid special attention to those long notes in the winds, sometimes begging, urging, then again growing, menacing — relentlessly driven forward by the strings.

Many must have felt that the Andante movement was faster than expected, too. But Norrington correctly played two, not six beats per 6/8 bar. This way, the tempo still felt like a natural, walking pace. Even more than in the first movement, one remembers the ominous crescendo notes which evoked scenes such as the final part of Don Giovanni. The absence of vibrato made this even more unsettling. It emphasized the threatening aspect of this movement.

The Menuetto (Allegretto, 3/4) on the other hand might have felt slower, heavier than expected. As Norrington explained, Allegretto ought to be slower than Allegro. On the other hand, the slow, earnest Menuetto made for a bigger contrast to the serene, bright Trio. But of course, that inevitably returned into the serious, pounding world of the Menuetto. The virtuosic last movement (Allegro assai) may have been closest to “traditional expectations” in the tempo. But of course, Norrington did not just take this as virtuosic Finale, but focused on the dramatic, almost fatal mood in this music. And again, there was no vibrato softening the contrasts, the harshness in some of Mozart’s melodies! All in all, a very interesting, often unsettling, emotional performance.


This was the second of five concerts in this season, which Sir Roger Norrington exclusively devotes to music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Each features an instrumental concert, surrounded by two symphonies. I can only strongly recommend the remaining concerts!

Addendum 1

For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I create the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.

 Addendum 2

For some of the works in this concert I have written separate CD reviews with more in-depth coverage of the composition:

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