Pichon, H&H find fresh illumination in Beethoven Ninth

March 16, 2024 at 12:35 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Raphaël Pichon conducted the Handel and Haydn Society in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 Friday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Sam Brewer

“Thunder is good,” Mark Twain wrote. “Thunder is impressive. But it is lightning that does the work.”

A couple lightning bolts struck at Symphony Hall Friday night in the form of the Handel & Haydn Society and Raphaël Pichon, the charismatic French conductor whose debut with the group last season set a high bar for his return.

Thankfully, neither the man nor the ensemble are ones to be daunted by repertoire or expectations, since the stakes for this weekend’s single offering, Ludwig van Beethoven’s iconic Symphony No. 9, could hardly have been higher.

Granted, the “Choral” symphony is no stranger to these parts. Premiered 200 years ago in May, it received its first Boston performance courtesy of H&H in 1853. However, the Society has only returned to it sparingly since: Friday marked just the second time the group’s presented the score since 2015.

Accordingly, the evening’s concert was crowded with anticipation, as some tentative moments in the first movement perhaps inadvertently betrayed and the H&H Orchestra took time to settle. Pichon’s brisk tempos resulted in lean textures and an invigorating sense of momentum, though raw tone and moments of spotty ensemble suggested a work in progress.

The Scherzo, though, implied something else. Here, tight, spry rhythms carried the day. Though swift, these were never frenetic and didn’t once lose their dancing impetus. The results were bracing and entrancing, especially when balanced by the orchestra’s sunny account of the Trio.

In the luminous Adagio, Pichon and his band settled, buoyantly and limpidly, into Beethoven’s effulgent lyricism. Theirs was a reading in which everything flowed seamlessly: the blend between woodwinds and strings was nearly irreproachable and the conductor’s ear for the melodic line ensured that the principal thematic materials were never lost in the music’s circumfluent figurations.

Yet the story of the night was Pichon’s gripping account of the Ninth’s visionary finale.

Though its opening “terror chord” felt slightly muted, the contrast between that and the subsequent, legato, low-string recitatives was striking. What’s more, the appearances—and abrupt dismissals—of the previous movements’ themes unfolded with uncommon purpose. So did the instrumental introduction of the “Ode to Joy” theme, which was appealingly zaftig and managed to illuminate its debts to music heard earlier without unduly underlining them.

Photo: Sam Brewer

The mid-movement entry of voices involved a moment of theatricality—the four soloists entered, stage-right, after the second “terror chord” – and quickly took on a life of its own. Following bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen’s rich, commanding injunction to “sing more cheerful songs,” the H&H Chorus, supplemented by the H&H Youth Choruses Chamber Choir, did just that.

Though considerably more robust in tone (and size) than usual for this group, the choral contingent offered an agile and full-bodied account of their part. Beethoven’s treacherous, high-lying vocal writing held no terrors; neither did the movement’s stark contrasts of tone and mood.

The solo quartet—consisting of  Ketelsen, soprano Adriana González, mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo, and tenor Matthew Newlin—suffused their moments together with plenty of zip. Newlin, in particular, navigated his craggy solos in the Turkish March with resplendent lyrical command.

Pichon presided over the whole undertaking with assurance. Though his was a rhythmically vigorous, impellent account of this familiar work, it didn’t stint on details: the bucolic little bassoon pedal point accompanying the first vocal solo section danced and the orchestral fugue before the great “Ode to Joy” refrain was conspicuously well-shaped.

Indeed, Friday’s account reveled in the score’s fine points without losing sight of the big picture. Meanwhile, Pichon & Co.’s embrace of the music’s stylistic diversity was warm and discernibly enthusiastic. As a result, their effort managed to sound utterly spontaneous and fresh.

In other words, it thundered.

The program will be repeated 2 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall. handelandhaydn.org

Posted in Performances

4 Responses to “Pichon, H&H find fresh illumination in Beethoven Ninth”

  1. Posted Mar 16, 2024 at 5:07 pm by Dan junkins

    An exuberant performance with the vibrant, balletic and inspired Pichon bending, stretching, and expanding the musicians to every inch of Symphony Hall!

  2. Posted Mar 16, 2024 at 9:42 pm by Tom

    I attended the Saturday performance and came away with a vastly different opinion.Apparently lightning doesn’t strike twice. At times I found myself wondering how this could be the same ensemble that gives such great performances of Messiah. Today they seemed bored or distracted most of the time, out of synch, and completely overpowered by the chorus.

    Good 2nd movement though.

  3. Posted Mar 17, 2024 at 10:49 am by peter foster

    Saturday’s afternoon performance was magnificent, stunningly revelatory musically and spiritually! Never have I experienced tears forming and then finally unashamedly found them sliding down my face!! Amazing offering of talent and work!!!

  4. Posted Mar 17, 2024 at 2:13 pm by Carlos Santaella

    I attended Friday’s concert and agreed with your review. However, though the public applauded profusely, no encore was granted. I’m disappointed, but it was a good night indeed!

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