The Handel & Haydn Society (H&H) was formed in 1815 to present good performances of sacred vocal music to the public, and the group has always had an orchestra. These days the purely instrumental concerts vastly outnumber those with chorus (this year, 10 to 4). Whereas performances in the past were more equally divided and emphasized music of the present, today the programs concentrate on music of the Baroque and Classical periods with appropriate instruments (according to the Society’s current mission statement). For the program at Symphony Hall on Friday, November 6 and repeated on Sunday, November 8, that orchestra numbered 14 violins, 4 violas, 4 cellos, 2 contrabasses, 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, and 1 timpani, or 34 in all. Combine the intimacy of this group, among whom are some of Boston’s finest soloists, with direction by the remarkable British conductor Jane Glover, and the music making is guaranteed to be not only satisfying, but memorable.
Glover is particularly known for her work with Baroque opera and with Mozart. Thus the program was a perfect match, beginning with the Entr’acte music from Mozart’s Thamos, King of Egypt, K. 345/356a, his only incidental music. It comprises three choruses and five instrumental interludes, which the H&H has performed in its entirety only once, in 1995, according to its website. Glover chose to conduct four of the orchestral interludes. Her tempi were sprightly, but never too fast; the music was clear and crisp, the orchestra cheerfully and delicately following all the double-fortes and pianissimos and verbal cues written into the score to reflect the melodrama of the play — the overall feeling very much in the spirit of a Handelian overture. As has been said, Glover’s conducting gestures are invigorating, but can also be tender. She uses no baton, but rather conveys her designs through expressive body and hand gestures. They are a joy to watch and hear the results simultaneously.
Robert Levin returned, as he has several times since 1990, to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 21 (K. 467), which he had performed once before with the H&H, in 2001. This was the centerpiece of the concert, mainly because of Levin’s ebullience and obvious relish for the task as well as his constant visual and musical interrelationship with Glover and the rest of the orchestra. As Levin remarked in answer to a question in the session that followed the concert, about 45% of his performance was improvised. He played during all the tutti sections and contributed his own exceedingly florid cadenzas that rumbled in the fortepiano’s bass with great enthusiasm. Again in answer to a question, Levin was performing on his own replica of a Johann Schantz (1762-1828) instrument made by Thomas and Barbara Wolf of The Plains, VA. (This information should have been in the program booklet.)
For proper balance of sound, the piano was placed in the center of the orchestra behind the conductor so that he faced her and the audience. The music stand was removed, thus ensuring the pleasure of seeing Levin’s face as he gleefully achieved his improvisations. The tempi were breathtaking, but not rushed, thanks to the clarity of performance. His rapid scale passages were played with an emphatically legato touch that made real arias rise and fall. In the Andante second movement these phrases were particularly stretched out and melodic, using a rubato that was almost over the top, but in the end, just right. In the third movement he playfully handed themes back and forth with the orchestra, turning his head with a smile to anticipate the next statement from the winds. Levin has spent a great deal of time editing as well as performing Mozart’s music, and it shows brilliantly.
The story of Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony (no. 45) is well-known. Written in 1772 for the Esterhazy orchestra members to protest their working conditions, the composer provided a method for them to exit the stage during the last movement, leaving only two violinists at the end playing a charming and delicate cadence. Glover herself joined the penultimate exodus, with a shrug of her hands that brought chuckles from the audience. She had successfully counteracted the anticipated humor by giving a gracious performance of this beautiful music, conducting short sections in long phrases that easily yielded comprehension. This was altogether a glorious evening for aficionados of this music.