H&H goes M&B for an uneven program of chamber music

April 9, 2016 at 12:27 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Aisslinn Nosky performed music of Mozart and Beethoven in the Handel and Haydn Society concert Friday night at Sanders Theatre. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Aisslinn Nosky performed music of Mozart and Beethoven in the Handel and Haydn Society concert Friday night at Jordan Hall. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Every season, the Handel and Haydn Society offers more than the music of its namesake composers, and works by Mozart and Beethoven make up a regular portion of the society’s programming. This past fall, H&H gave a stellar performance of Mozart’s dramatic Requiem, and the society has presented concerts revolving around the work of Beethoven each winter.

Friday night at Jordan Hall, members of H&H performed chamber music by Mozart and Beethoven to more mixed results.

The centerpiece of the program was Beethoven’s Septet, Op. 20. Composed in 1799, the Septet is one of the composer’s most substantial essays for winds and strings, and its six movements walk the wire between light divertissement and high seriousness. 

The performance, given by an ensemble that consisted mainly of H&H principals led by concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, was not technically immaculate. Portions of the finale suffered from intonation problems in the strings, and elsewhere tentative ensemble attacks created a few tears in the musical fabric. But what made this performance a compelling one was the ensemble’s grasp of Beethoven’s richly textured style.

The piece’s seriousness lies in the slow introductions of the outer movements. In each, the ensemble played with palpable weight while rendering the ensuing quick sections with dexterity. The theme and variations of the fourth movement featured fine solo contributions from violinist Nosky, violist Jenny Stirling, clarinetist Eric Hoeprich, and hornist Todd Williams. Rustic verve more than courtly grace defined the third movement minuet, and the fifth movement Scherzo had bite and a keen sense of sparkling humor. The ensemble’s finest playing came in the Adagio, where the musicians swelled their sound for phrases of luminous intensity.

Less successful was the opener, Beethoven’s String Trio, Op. 9, No. 3.

Cast in four movements, this early work of the composer’s captures the emotional power and drama that would come to characterize his later music. 

Indeed, playing this piece calls for the musicians to negotiate between extremes of darkness and light. Friday’s performance had plenty of the latter while generally lacking in the former. 

That was owed primarily to the ensemble’s blend. Nosky, Stirling, and cellist Guy Fishman played with glowing warmth—usually a positive trait in performances—that failed to plumb the depths of the opening phrases. Beautiful as their playing was, one missed the distinctive sharp-edged sound, particularly in the syncopated chords, that is often heard in performances of this movement. And though the development featured some fine fiddling from the musicians, the music failed to emerge with a sense of rapt mystery.

Lack of bite plagued the Scherzo as well, though the players’ confidence grew as the movement progressed, and their playing took on a crisp energy by movement’s end. The Finale fared better as the musicians were able to maneuver the quick changes in mood with conviction.

The second movement, with its expressive phrases, was best. The musicians took time to spin out the music’s silver-laced lines, with Nosky and Fishman trading silky solo phrases.

Warmth of tone and fine ensemble blend were most well fitted to Friday’s performance of Mozart’s Violin Sonata in B-flat, K. 378.

Mozart composed this sonata in 1781 for violin and piano, but the work has found a second life in an arrangement for clarinet and string trio that was published in 1799.

Though scholars still do not know who made this arrangement, the result is a deftly crafted piece that captures the sparkling textures and contrapuntal lines of the original. Clarinet and violin share the solo spotlight.

Eric Hoeprich has a fine reputation for his beaming lyrical tone and pristine technique. Playing on a boxwood clarinet Friday night, Hoeprich was a commanding presence in his feature parts. He lofted elegantly phrased lines before passing them off to Nosky, who rendered the music with rosy tone. 

The second movement was a particular delight, with Nosky’s and Hoeprich’s lines floating freely above the supple string accompaniment supplied by Stirling and Fishman. 

The concluding Rondo moved with a graceful lilt. And though the melody was hindered by moments of unsteady intonation, the players managed to find the light humor of this score, especially in the quick section that appears mid movement.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at Sanders Theatre. handelandhaydn.org; 617-266-3605

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