On Friday evening, 9 April, at Symphony Hall, venerable Handel and Haydn gave the first of two identical Beethoven orchestral concerts over the weekend. To mark the very high esteem in which this early music-friendly town holds the conductor, Sir Roger Norrington, the New England Conservatory conferred an honorary doctorate on him at the start of the second half. In best modern Boston style, conductor, NEC President Tony Woodcock, and Chair of Orchestral Conducting Hugh Wolff strode out from backstage in the Conservatory’s doctoral garb — black flashed with soft pink — and tempered the formality of the occasion with grins and modest hi-jinx. As always, Mr. Norrington’s stage presence during his entrances and in short waits for silence in the hall was sunny. He reacted to the customary, eternally distracting applause between movements uncritically, establishing a light but manifestly serious demeanor for the performances.
At some time early in our musical educations, we were surprised and perhaps taken aback to learn that Beethoven sketched and finished the Third, Fourth, and Fifth symphonies at the same time. These three are not, we discovered, successive growth spurts, but three contemporaneous facets of a composer boldly taking wing, a decade and a half into his residence in Vienna. Those years were also the outset of the shattering Napoleonic subjugation of Austria, a complex and fraught imperial sea change. In my teens, learning about this greater historical picture startled me and brought on my first fledgling reassessment of the composer. One or two friends relate a similarly bouleversant epiphany with Beethoven. They, too, were struck by this striking synchronicity and have since been alive to the latent horsepower in the Fourth Symphony in Bb, Op. 60 (1806).
The conscientiously pan-European vision in Robert Schumann’s writings furnishes us with a balanced, vivid glimpse of composing, music making, and literate activity going into the second third of the 19th century. This busy Biedermeier chronicler characterized the Beethoven Fourth as “eine griechisch schlanke Maid zwischen zwei Nordlandriesen” — a slim Greek maid twixt two Nordic colossi. The big Eb Third and c-minor Fifth, of course, are the thick flanking slabs of wholegrain to which he refers.
It was evident from the opening Adagio, so crucial and oft-times treacherous a passage for establishing pace and emotional balance, that we were to have a wonderfully clear-eyed and loving Fourth. The emergence of each new section, of each new or recast tempo, within Mr. Norrington’s overarching schema was logical and rhetorically concise. The architectonics were as unambiguous as they could have been. Wind and brass lines were never cast in solo garb. Rather, each single-strand instrumental utterance emerged as a trimmed-down continuance of what the ensemble as a whole was declaiming. There were prime example of this. The quickish Adagio wasn’t unsettled at all, but neither did it inhabit a customary plane of repose, or of relaxation. Without being overcharged, it proclaimed a detailed and defined forward motion that was surprisingly refreshing and unfamiliar in Symphony Hall performances. Next, the transition into and out of the Trio between the two halves of the Menuetto, which in a year or two would no doubt have borne the label Scherzo. Rather than proclaiming the sometimes in-your-face tempo change that some favor, or preserving the precise pace of the outer sections, Mr. Norrington subtly put on the brakes, inviting the band to treat the score espressivissamente (with occasional peccati d’intonazione among the winds) and with audible relish in their unanimity and crystalline filigree. The fourth movement, at times revisiting the climate of the first movement in uncanny ways, was not a familiar Beethoven (or Mozart) summation, but the fashioning of a new soundscape with simple, sometimes downright straightforward lines by smaller forces building toward great drama and those wonderfully-hued fortes this composer made so varied and satisfying.
Though it is beloved and usually feels comfortingly familiar in live performance, the Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68 “Pastorale” (1807-08) presents conductor and colleagues with interesting hurdles of organization and inflection. Mr. Norrington’s entire lack of self-important gesture or willfulness was yet more convincing in the Pastorale Symphony than in the Fourth. Beethoven, an urbanite by choice, visited the country often, but viewed it through the lens of late Classical composition and nascent, Goethe-inspired Romanticism. From the composer’s opening chapter in his unusual rustic tone painting, Allegro, ma non troppo – Erwachen heiterer Gefühle bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande (“Awakening of happy feelings upon reaching the countryside”), the conductor unified the considerable number of solo instrumental commentaries with the greater orchestral passages, making more of the travelogue character of the piece than I’m used to hearing. With fine success, let it be said. The next section — “movement” is not quite what these are — Andante molto mosso – Szene am Bach (“Brookside scene”) strode down bosky bridle-paths that, for this listener, directly evoked both the character of the Boccherini Ritirada Militar Nocturna de Madrid (final movement of the Guitar Quintet No. 6 in C, G.453) and that of a couple of the more evocative Quattro Stagioni by Vivaldi. It was no different in the middle Allegro – Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute (“Cheerful gathering of the country folk”) and the Stokowski-famous Allegro – Gewitter und Sturm (“Cloudburst and tempest”), in which conductor and band carried on a logical evolution of both Beethoven’s subtly linked motifs and memorable tunes and of, not strange to say, the more colorful symphonic directions embarked upon within that same decade by aging Haydn. The conclusion of it all, as we know, resembles none of the directions taken by Beethoven or his contemporaries, and the Allegretto – Hirtengesang – Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm (“Shepherd’s song – Cheerful, grateful feelings after the storm”) concentrates the rustic charm lodged within the exquisite little melodies, repeating them to heighten, not cheapen, their appeal, and — surprise! — emerges at a drama-rich, near-formal coda. Mr. Norrington established such a sweeping, strong line from beginning to end of the symphony that one could relax into the little details, always pulled surely along in the ensemble’s unambiguous wake.
In the decades since Handel & Haydn’s founding in March of 1815, this choral and symphonic entity has enriched Boston’s musical life in ways attuned to the musical intelligence and taste of quite a variety of music directors, board members, and major contributors. That’s about ten generations of service, and consequently of (mostly) secure employment for musicians. Commitment to early instruments and performance practice are still a fairly new facet of H&H’s presence in the city’s music scene, dating from only 1986, when Christopher Hogwood took the tiller. Now under Harry Christophers — yes, we here do delight in our benign infestation of frighteningly gifted Brits — the band’s future seasons look as appealing as they’ve ever been. If we are favored with more Beethoven (and Schubert, and Schumann, and so on) of the caliber heard on this early April evening, Boston will continue to have not a salient reason to abandon conventional, modern instrumentation and choral singing, but excellent grounds to so broaden the city’s taste for variety and informed rethinking of chestnuts and partitions inédites that drab or unimpassioned music-making will be darned hard to sell. Good-o!