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Norrington and Co. embrace Schubertian rhapsody

LONDON CLASSICAL PLAYERS

Conducted by Roger Norrington.

Works by Beethoven and Schubert.

Symphony Hall, Oct. 26.

Event in The Tech Performing Arts Series.

By JONATHAN RICHMOND

SCHUBERT shows Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players at their best. Their new recordings of the fifth and eighth symphonies have been recently sending this writer into a regular state of euphoria. The Fifth flows with an exquisite serenity, the Eighth compels attention with its dark but ethereal coloration. So, here's a CD to run and buy if you want the ultimate in ecstasy without any bad side effects.

At Symphony Hall last Friday Norrington & Co. performed Schubert's Fourth. The openness of the clean, early instrument strings seemed to especially embrace Schubertian rhapsody, playing out emotions with a directness which was poignant in its simplicity.

The opening movement began with a wonderful gentleness, developing a profound melancholy that eventually built into a spellbinding excitement.

The Andante began a trifle uncomfortably, sounding for the first few seconds like a record playing at the wrong speed. But then the performance clicked into place and became the most touching account imaginable. The tempo was fast, but Norrington mastered the pulse of the music so that it didn't sound that way. The string sound was seamless; the woody-sounding winds injected a note of plangency not possible with modern instruments fashioned from steel. The balance of voices was -- quite simply -- right, each one speaking eloquently and intertwining with the others harmoniously.

The third movement was nicely paced, its tightly-conceived sound projecting brilliantly. The Finale, with its whimsical breathlessness, had a delicious sense of wit -- just the sort of thing one would expect from one of the few original instruments orchestras concerned to find the humanity, not just the technique, in its music.

The rest of the printed program consisted of Beethoven. The Egmont Overture, which opened the concert, had an understated excitement to it, the transparency of the Classical Players' sound giving it a special vigor. This may not have been a blood and guts performance, but it didn't have to be: the music spoke with a life of its own.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 didn't come across quite so well. Despite the suspenseful opening and colorful, even pastoral, sounds that permeated the work, the Classical Players' characteristic precision fell by the wayside during several passages, producing a mushiness that didn't go at all well with the music. Especially in the second movement, the playing also had a tendency to sound not quite natural: artificially prettified, it seemed.

The two encores that followed were splendid, however. Beethoven's overture

to Prometheus was done with bite, and Rossini's overture to Il Signor Bruschino brought the concert to a sunny ending, packed full with humor and charm. Perhaps it's time Norrington did a Rossini opera for us.