Egarr leads H&H in varied program from a rare Bach to familiar Beethoven
In progressive readings of music history, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major seems a throwback to older forms. Its classical restraint and smaller scope, overshadowed by the Promethean Third and earth-shaking Fifth Symphonies, show a composer in touch with the elegance and wit associated with the style of his one-time teacher, Haydn. Yet less can indeed be more, and the music’s direct energy can make for some exciting listening.
Friday night at Symphony Hall, Richard Egarr returned to lead the Handel and Haydn Society in this intimate Beethoven masterwork. Rounding out the program were Haydn’s “London” Symphony and a delightful orchestral piece by a little-known member of the Bach family.
But the highlight of the program stemmed from events that unfolded earlier this week. British trumpeter Alison Balsom, due to illness, was forced to cancel her performance of Haydn’s groundbreaking Trumpet Concerto with H&H. In her place, Egarr led Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture.
One couldn’t tell that this was a last-minute filler given the fine performance by the period instrument orchestra Friday night. Completed in 1807 for Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s play (itself based upon Shakespeare), Coriolan captures the tragic downfall and death of a Roman hero. The music is vexing. Bold chords interrupt the desolate strains of the first theme, and the warm, lyrical passages that follow glide uneasily over churning figures in the lower strings. The restless music settles only in the forlorn closing bars. Egarr, with sharp and waving gestures, drew dramatic pillars of sound from the H&H musicians, making the hero’s demise palpable.
Beethoven’s music pushed the instruments of the day to their limits. That’s still true even in more understated works like the Fourth Symphony. There were occasional split notes, unshapely phrasing, and shrill attacks from solo woodwinds, yet the orchestra largely responded with vigor under Egarr’s guide. Solid woodwind blend brought pastoral serenity to the second movement. Egarr and company explored the wide emotional range in the searching phrases of the opening Adagio. H&H’s most sparkling playing came in the work’s second half, where punchy statements in the Scherzo and the finale, taken at a spirited tempo, moved with vitality.
Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 in D major, known as the “London,” the last in his set of twelve symphonies commissioned for public concerts in England’s capital city, fared better still.
In the slow introduction, one of the composer’s most profound, solemn fanfares and stark, searching utterances wander in and out of major and minor keys. The music finds its direction in the ensuing Allegro, where the H&H strings and winds trades the movement’s single evolving theme with grace. Strings and solo bassoon joined for glowing blend in the Andante; their light approach gave the dainty melody a dance-like feel. Egarr opened the throttle for the burly minuet and folk-like finale to put an exclamation point on this superb reading.
Making up the lighter side of the evening’s offerings was the Symphony in G Major by Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach (1759-1845). This three-movement delicacy by the most famous of Johann Sebastian’s grandsons comprises the airs and graces of eighteenth-century courtly life. The gentle tick-tock theme of the first movement turns over upon itself, gathering embellishments along the way. The final movement’s lilting jig spins off into several variations, some of which showcased concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky in brief yet dazzling cascades of notes. The symphony, though, contains a few surprising turns, particularly in the Andante, where sighing motives break into unexpected turbulences. It’s an attractive work, and Egarr and the H&H gave a sensitive performance.
The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Hall. handelandhaydn.org; 617-262-1815
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