On Friday evening, March 18th, Richard Egarr returned to the Handel and Haydn Society to conduct an historically informed concert featuring Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Because of his distinguished reputation as an expert in period performance, Egarr was certain to fit in quite nicely with Boston’s oldest performing ensemble. And it was an evening of masterpieces, including Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni, Haydn’s Symphony No. 101 in D Major (“The Clock”), and Haydn’s Keyboard Concerto No. 11 in D Major, as well as the Beethoven Fifth. What I did not expect was a performance that would also be warm, mildly irreverent and, in general, fun.
Indeed, this contrast between the lighthearted and the sober was played out in the very first moments of the music. The terrifying opening bars of the overture, foretelling of Don Giovanni’s fate, were sharply contrasted by the lighter, Viennese style of the movement proper; a contrast that was clarified by the Society’s nuanced interpretation. Although it took a minute or two to adjust to the softer sound of the period instruments in the vastness of Symphony hall, under Egarr’s angular and emphatic gestures the orchestra provided a warm and intriguing rendition of this canonic warhorse.
The contrast continued in the slow introduction of the first movement of the “The Clock” and the presto that followed, which the ensemble performed with an appropriate majesty and vigor. Further, the first movement provided a wonderful canvas against which the period instruments could shine. Particularly notable was the timbre and blend of the woodwind section. In the second movement, the fate idea returned again when the characteristic tick-tock accompaniment (the source of the symphony’s title) abruptly shifted to minor key. One could not help but reminisce on the mortal aspects of the unceasing passage of time, a reverie that was rudely interrupted by the untimely applause that followed the movement.
While I am not a fan of applause between movements because it tends to sap the momentum, in this situation the applause revealed a wonderful aspect of the concert – many, perhaps most of the people in the audience were under forty years of age. This was made even more delightful when Egarr gently chided them for their applause after intermission, and they took it as a form of a warm instruction.
After intermission, Egarr sat down at the fortepiano to join the orchestra. The entire concerto was enchanting, although it could be a bit distracting to watch Egarr multitask: turning his own pages, performing the solo part, and conducting all at once. At one particular moment he looked at the audience with a raised eyebrow as if to say, “You are aware of how hard this is, aren’t you?” Ultimately, the highpoint of his performance resided in the electrifying third movement’s halting folk melodies, in which Egarr’s wit was matched perfectly by the society’s charm. If the concert had ended at this point, it could fairly have been declared one of the better concerts to be heard at Symphony Hall this season — especially after Maestro Levine’s departure. But Egarr had saved his Beethoven for last.
Despite its name, the Handel and Haydn Society has long had an affection for Beethoven. In 1823, on behalf of the Society, a banker from Boston sought a commission from Beethoven to compose an oratorio. Although he accepted the commission and planned an oratorio titled Der Sieg des Kreuzes, the work was never completed. It is interesting to consider that the Handel and Haydn Society is one of the few performing organization that, when they seek a historically informed performing practice, they are seeking glimpses of their own history.
The Fifth Symphony started rather tentatively, but by the development the players had found their stride and proceeded to astonish the audience. Aisslinn Nosky, the newly appointed concert master with a wild streak, grew more physically enthusiastic at each iteration of the fate motive—an enthusiasm that was shared throughout her section. Further, Egarr’s chronological ordering of the program was ingenious. After being forced to focus intently on Mozart and Haydn’s smaller orchestra, for the audience, Beethoven’s larger ensemble filled the room like a thunderclap. In the performance this was well balanced by the restraint and poise that they brought to the return of the Scherzo. It was a beautiful, balanced, and dramatic interpretation.
Finally, one can’t help but note that with the triumphant close of Beethoven’s fourth movement, Egarr seemed to be trying to revise the fate of Don Giovanni. However, whether or not the old philanderer got his just deserts in the end, Egarr got his when the entire house leaped to its feat for an ovation. Egarr is performing this program again on Sunday night at Symphony Hall. Go see it.
Joseph E. Morgan is a PhD graduate of Brandeis University, where he studied early German romantic opera. He lives and teaches in the Boston area.