Zeitouni leads Handel and Haydn in heroic Beethoven program

February 18, 2012 at 3:23 pm

By David Wright

Ludwig van Beethoven

Friday night’s program of the Handel and Haydn Society, led by the Canadian maestro Jean-Marie Zeitouni, was nominally about heroes.

Napoleon Bonaparte stood at the center, the inspiration for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Eroica.  Lamoral, Count of Egmont, who fought bravely and tragically against Spanish rule in the Netherlands, inspired a play by Goethe and Beethoven’s incidental music for that play, including his dramatic Egmont Overture.

The long-reigning Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresia, though not a military leader, became a hero to her subjects by shrewdly playing the game of international relations and establishing political stability at home.  For reasons not entirely clear, but appropriately nonetheless, Haydn’s superb Symphony No. 48 in C major acquired her name.

But the real star of the night was music’s symphony hero, Ludwig van Beethoven.  As the famous story goes, the builders of Symphony Hall proposed to display composers’ names around the stage’s proscenium arch.  Beethoven was the consensus first choice, but there was no agreement on whom else to honor.  To this day, Beethoven’s is the only name above Symphony Hall’s stage, and the other spaces remain blank.

What Beethoven did to deserve such an accolade was evident in this program, a rare opportunity to hear symphonies by both Haydn and Beethoven at the same concert.

Haydn, the undisputed father of the genre, brought the symphony to an early peak of intellectual vigor and expressiveness—and, one might say, centrality to the whole enterprise of music.  His sometime pupil Beethoven, however, took an enormous leap into the modern age, evoking the spirit not just of the French Revolution but of the industrial revolution, and he did so in a single, unprecedented work, the Eroica.

Zeitouni prepared the ground for this revelation by beginning the concert with a later Beethoven composition in the heroic mold, the Egmont Overture.  Because of their lean sound and clear attack, period-instrument orchestras typically take allegros at a faster clip than their modern counterparts, but Zeitouni went against that tendency in the Egmont, urging the players to slow down and dig deep in the tragic sections, the better to race to the finish in the “victory” coda.  This interpretation would have had more impact if Zeitouni had made more of the piece’s most distinctive feature, a hard stress on upbeats that gives the music an urgent, almost desperate character.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 48 is music on the grand scale, with prominent roles for horns, woodwinds, and timpani, loads of intellectual content in its imitative counterpoint, and a vast Adagio in five sections punctuated with many fermatas and pregnant pauses.  On Friday night, Zeitouni and the orchestra expertly realized both Haydn’s grand design and his ever-shifting details of tone color and mood.

Relieved of the necessity to cut through a large modern orchestra, the antique woodwinds displayed their agility and charm in creamy tones.  The outdoorsy whoop of the valveless horns made them stand out from the pack—too much so in some passages, but delightfully so where Haydn featured them, as in the symphony’s opening bars.

How one hears a period-instrument performance of the Eroica depends on what one is comparing it to.  Those accustomed to hearing modern orchestras play this work—and that’s pretty nearly everybody—may miss the feeling of vast sonic space that links this music to everything that came after, such as the symphonies of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler.

On the other hand, to hear the Eroica immediately after a symphony by Haydn—and an especially fine one, at that—is to marvel at the Promethean spirit that could so relentlessly, even obsessively, probe and expand a seemingly perfected genre, in search of a new kind of expression for a new era.

Zeitouni set the insurrectionary tone right at the top by striding onstage, briefly acknowledging the applause, then cueing the symphony’s two big opening chords before the audience had finished clapping.  Caught off guard, one had the sense of the music racing ahead, the new ideas coming thick and fast, while the listener scrambled to keep up—surely an “authentic” listening experience, circa 1803.

Zeitouni moved the funeral march along smartly—nicht schleppend, as Mahler would say—and the major-key middle section was positively jaunty, as if remembering triumphal parades.  The scherzo was marvelously light-footed, its jabbing syncopations taking an old Haydn trick to the next level.  And the burst of creativity that is the variations finale showed every section of the orchestra to advantage, including the string principals, who played the early strings-only variation as a convivial string quartet.

But of course, in this first symphony ever to include three horns, the iconic moment of the evening belonged to the boys in the back, who may have struggled here and there to manage their balky instruments, but who stepped up in the trio of the Eroica’s scherzo to flawlessly sound Beethoven’s barbaric yawp to a new, democratic world.

As a prelude to this concert, singers from four area high schools who participate in Handel and Haydn’s Collaborative Youth Concerts program joined professional vocal soloists and instrumentalists in a performance of the Gloria from Mozart’s Coronation Mass, K. 317.  Under the direction of Handel and Haydn chorusmaster and associate conductor John Finney, the young artists sang with exemplary energy, intonation, and diction.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday.  tickets.handelandhaydn.org. 617-266-3605 or at Symphony Hall before the concert.

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