Egarr, Levin and Handel and Haydn freshen up Beethoven favorites

February 27, 2016 at 3:11 pm

By David Wright

Richard Egarr led the Handel and Haydn Society Friday night at Symphony Hall.

A brief souvenir of a famously long night was on the bill Friday at Symphony Hall, as fortepianist Robert Levin and the Handel and Haydn Society under Richard Egarr performed two works from the most notorious all-Beethoven concert ever given.

Even with a prelude showcasing the Society’s youth choirs, Friday’s concert clocked in at barely an hour and three-quarters.

 In contrast, on December 22, 1808 , Beethoven put on a marathon concert of his new works that, over a period of four hours in a frigid Vienna theater, presented (among other things) the first public performances of the aria “Ah, perfido,” the Choral Fantasy, the Piano Concerto No. 4, and the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies.  Frostbite and incomprehension of Beethoven’s radical new ideas led to a general verdict of “too much of a good thing, and too much of a loud,” as one audience member put it.

Happily, the heating system of Symphony Hall was working Friday night, and Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto and Sixth Symphony are now familiar friends—though still capable of sounding radical, as Friday’s fresh and vital performances proved.

And as for loud, Levin’s fortepiano was barely audible as he caressed the opening bars of the concerto.  The orchestra followed suit, and the music emerged only gradually from the silence.

Soon enough, however, a crisp and bright performance was under way, at a fast, steady tempo in which Levin nevertheless found room for expressive phrasing.  The period instruments sounded well matched, with the clattery tone of Levin’s instrument easily cutting through the silvery strings and mellow winds of the orchestra, and his fortissimo chords slapping the ear like the crack of a whip.

One reason to buy a ticket to a Robert Levin concerto performance is to hear what this skilled improviser will do at the cadenzas, those junctures in the score where the soloist used to be expected to make something up on the spot.

An expert at this lost art, Levin obliged Friday night in the first movement with an elaborate solo festooned with fast scales and arpeggios, building up the gentle first theme to a fortissimo roar, then mulling over another theme with embellishments before cuing the conductor to continue the piece.

Unwittingly following 1808 performance practice, the audience applauded enthusiastically at the first movement’s big finish.  Given the quality of this performance, one wouldn’t have minded if they had also demanded that the whole movement be encored, as might have happened in the old days (though probably not on that December night in Vienna).

In the second movement, the performers interpreted Beethoven’s marking Andante con moto (going, with motion) as stepping out boldly in strong phrases for unison strings, with the fortepiano keeping up the pace, though much more quietly.

As the pianist gradually won the strings over to the softer side, and shifted his own instrument to the still softer una corda setting, the early instruments began to sound quite far away in the grand space of Symphony Hall, and the last third of the movement was played at the very threshold of audibility.

No such problem in the military-style finale, which began softly but soon was reveling in brass fanfares and timpani cannon shots.  Improviser Levin merrily elaborated on Beethoven’s elaborations of his rondo theme, twice added mini-cadenzas (Eingang, or lead-in) to the theme’s return, and whipped up a showy new cadenza near the close.

Levin and conductor Egarr artfully managed Beethoven’s teasing coda, to the delight of the audience, which summoned Levin back to the stage twice for bows.  Having already re-composed Beethoven, the ebullient pianist now seized the conductor’s prerogative and signaled individual players in the orchestra to stand and share the applause with him.

Halving shown his skill at collaboration, Egarr took full charge in the program’s second half, leading an assertive performance of the Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”).  He hinted at his intentions in a brief conductor’s note in the printed program, calling attention to the “massive dangers” of country life in the nineteenth century, including “constant struggle for survival, disease, and the sometimes devastating effects of nature.”

If Beethoven depicted massive dangers in this piece, it would be in the fourth movement’s thunderstorm, and indeed Egarr and his band made the violins flash, the timpani crack, and the piccolos screech, to scary effect.

Otherwise, Beethoven’s own movement titles, full of adjectives like “cheerful” and “merry,” seem to be entirely about the pleasant sensations that come to a city boy when he’s in the countryside, and Egarr’s performance, though speeded up from usual practice to match the metronome markings Beethoven provided retroactively to this piece, didn’t contradict that.

While the first movement’s fast tempo did cause some stumbling and blurring of the dotted rhythms, and the composer’s “awakening of cheerful feelings” sounded a bit overcaffeinated, one could admire the balanced interplay of strings and winds, and the artful blending of the horns, which are often a bit of a “sore thumb” in period-instrument performances.

The second movement, “Scene by the brook,” seemed to start at Beethoven’s fast metronome mark, then back off it to a more leisurely flow, allowing Egarr’s conducting to become very hands-on, indicating every stress and surge, and adjusting balances.  At the same time, he managed to achieve the one-to-a-bar lilting rhythm implied in Beethoven’s verbal marking Andante molto mosso (going, moving very much).

The audience, still feeling its 1808 oats, applauded at the ends of the first and second movements, making one understand why Beethoven instructed that the last three be played without a break.

The “Merry gathering of country folk” moved along at a testing pace, especially for Todd Williams playing the hard-to-manage valveless horn, but he and everyone else gave a clean, energetic performance, swinging into the still-faster dance interlude with gusto.

Following the frightening storm, the closing “Shepherd’s song” expressed its “cheerful and thankful feelings” rapidly, but with a satisfying glow of woodwinds,  reinforced by bright brass at the climaxes and not masked by thick string sound, as in some modern-instrument performances.

The developmental episodes had suspense and atmosphere, and Beethoven’s leisurely, doubling-back coda, which so exasperated its teeth-chattering first hearers, here unfolded with meandering charm.

*          *          *

Before the Beethoven program began, the orchestra was joined onstage by young singers from the Society’s Collaborative Youth Concert Choruses program.  Andrew Clark conducted the opening chorus of Handel’s Saul, “How excellent they name,” in a vigorous performance marked by excellent tonal blend and clear diction. 

The program will be repeated 3 p.m.; 617-266-3605.

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