At the start of the second half of the Handel and Haydn Society’s program in Symphony Hall on March 20, the conductor and fortepianist Richard Egarr turned to the audience and addressed us briefly. Eschewing a microphone (“things of the devil”), he spoke of his pleasure playing with the orchestra and of his delight in the program, particularly the Haydn Concerto in D Major, which he was about to play, and which he declared to be “an awful lot of fun.” He then seated himself at the fortepiano and twiddled and flourished while the audience finished chuckling, coughing, and shuffling; then he waved and trilled cheerfully at someone who was trying to make an inconspicuous exit from the balcony and cued in the orchestra. And on the whole, the evening was an awful lot of fun. But not, perhaps, quite as much as it might have been.
The Overture to Don Giovanni, with which the program began, was charming but a trifle incoherent. Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony in D Major, which followed the Overture, an enchanting piece, was more energetic – I was particularly amused by the coyly mincing Andante – but the Presto of the first movement skittered along at such a pace that the orchestra was dangerously near to falling out of step, and there were a few lamentable squawks from the natural horns.
The level of energy rose another step for the Concerto after the intermission, particularly in the final movement, “a total Hungarian romp,” as Egarr called it. Of course, it labored under the perennial difficulty of using a fortepiano in Symphony Hall. Egarr’s tone on the instrument is quite beautiful, the orchestra achieved some very lovely pianissimi (which were used to great effect throughout the program), and the fortepiano was tolerably audible from my seat in the middle of the stalls. No doubt it was more audible in the balconies near the front of the hall; but how much the audience in the back of the hall heard, I hesitate to think. I fear it cannot have been much – a pity, if half the very large audience could hardly hear the soloist. The fact is, fortepiani were not built to produce a sound large enough to fill a space the size of Symphony Hall. I wish that I could inform the readers what instrument the fortepiano being used is based on, but the otherwise very thorough program did not include this information, and I cannot say anything beyond its being a modern instrument built by the omnipresent Paul McNulty.
However, it was with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, the last piece on the program, that the energy of the performance really rocketed. There were still an unfortunate number of ragged entrances, for which I do not know the explanation. From the audience, it seemed to me that Egarr’s conducting was perhaps not as clear as it might have been, and his tempi fluctuated considerably. Indeed, H&H’s new concertmistress, the Canadian violinist Aisslinn Nosky, dancing in her chair with infectious vigor, seemed to be far clearer in her gestures than Egarr. But aside from these intermittent bouts of unsteadiness, the Beethoven was played with a conviction, abandon, and passion, that had been to some extent lacking in the preceding pieces – thought there is certainly no lack of passion in Mozart and Haydn. Perhaps the very familiarity of the Fifth Symphony, so often played that it has become the grandfather of clichés, led the orchestra to fling itself into the performance with more passion than usual. After all, if one is going to play a famous, melodramatic, and romantic piece which the entire audience has heard any number of times, surely it is best to play with as much sincerely extravagant melodrama and romanticism as possible?