in: Reviews

February 18, 2012

Handel and Haydn’s Eroica Most Satisfying

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The Montréal-based conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni led Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra last night at Symphony Hall in a program of music by Haydn and Beethoven. In fact the concert, which will be repeated Sunday, opened with a performance of the Gloria from Mozart’s “Coronation” Mass K. 317. The latter, in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Collaborative Youth Concerts, included soloists Teresa Wakim, Carrie Cheron, Christian Figueroa, and RaShaun Campbell. But as it was led by associate conductor John Finney, chorus-master of the Society, and involved student singers from Boston Latin School, Brockton High School, the O’Bryant School of Math and Science in Roxbury, and Lawrence High School — and only a subset of the Handel and Haydn players—I shall limit comment on it to a few words at the end of this review.

The main events were Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and “Eroica” Symphony, bookending Haydn’s Symphony no. 48 in C, known as the “Maria Theresa.” I happen to have grown up listening to Max Goberman’s pioneering recordings of Haydn’s earlier symphonies with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, including this one. The LPs, recorded before Goberman’s death in 1962, came with scores bound in. There were few other such examples available in the public library of the suburb of Albany, NY, and thus I came to know Haydn’s earlier symphonies quite well.

Among them are many extraordinary works, still under-valued, but I am not sure that no. 48, now heard with some frequency, is one of them. It is certainly memorable for its catchy opening and the brilliant concertante writing for oboes and high horns in C. But the energy of the first movement repeatedly dissolves into discursive digressions of a type that Haydn later learned to avoid. Similar things occur in the second and third movements as well, all potentially expressive or rhetorical, but also potentially tiresome as they occur within passages that are heard multiple times. Although the last movement maintains its energy unbroken, its use of a so-called premature reprise means that one hears its comic-opera main theme perhaps a bit too often.

Symphonies of this type probably work best when played by the chamber-sized orchestra for which Haydn was probably writing around 1770, when he produced this piece for his Hungarian patron Count Nikolaus Esterhàzy. Even if this symphony really was composed for a festive visit by the Austrian empress Maria Theresa, as is commonly supposed, it is probably served better by a smaller ensemble than the one heard Friday night. Three rather than eight first violins on a part would not need a conductor to lead them in the long digressions, especially those of the second movement. Those in the second movement might have been rendered more freely or spontaneously if they could have been shaped by guest concertmaster Christina Day Martinson, playing as a quasi-soloist with two colleagues following her lead.

Zeitouni’s direction in the second movement was not inexpressive, but it necessarily tended to subdivide the long beats of this Adagio, which consequently seemed longer than it really was. There is always something wrong when you begin to hope that the performers will skip some of the repetitions in a piece. The fault may lie partly with the composer, but I was glad when the second half of the Adagio was not repeated (as called for in the score), despite some lovely playing from the oboes and horns. This movement might have been aided by a slightly quicker tempo on the whole; the quick movements, on the other hand, might have been more meaningful had they been played slightly less exuberantly. Doing so could have given them a chance to breathe, allowing the players more opportunity to articulate the individual gestures of the music.

Beethoven’s overture for Goethe’s tragedy Egmont was better suited to the relatively large period-instrument ensemble used here, including no fewer than three violoni or double basses. Zeitouni, in a brief “conductor’s note” in the program booklet, pointed out Beethoven’s use here of four horns, in place of the then-customary two. Indeed the horns, together with the clarinets and bassoons, produced some marvelous dark sonorities in the relatively few passages where all four play together. (Much of the time, as in other Classical works for so-called natural horns, the instruments alternate, two of them producing notes of one scale and two of them those of another.) These sounds, which could not have been produced by “modern” instruments, demonstrate how imaginatively Beethoven composed for the instruments of his time — although by 1809–10, when he wrote this music, he probably could no longer hear them. Nevertheless, as in the Haydn symphony, I felt that this was a fairly conventional interpretation, and, as in most performances of this piece, the rather sudden transition from the prevailing dark F minor to a triumphant F major for the brief coda did not seem quite convincing.

The “Eroica” was another story. This was the cleanest and most satisfyingly straightforward live performance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony that I’ve heard, including one by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique led by John Eliot Gardiner last October at Carnegie Hall in New York. Needless to say, this performance also was considerably more transparent than the Mahler re-orchestration played in the same hall a year earlier by the Baltimore Symphony under Marin Alsop.

The press kit conveniently furnished to your reviewer included an offprint of Jeremy Eichler’s Globe review of Sept. 24, 2011. This mentioned that under present artistic director Harry Christophers, the Handel and Haydn Orchestra is cultivating a “lighter, leaner” sound “in line with stylish European early music ensembles.” I couldn’t say whether what I heard Friday night should be described in this way. But I’ve been impressed by the much improved ensemble and precision of the strings in recent outings, particularly in the more difficult items on certain programs.

The “Eroica” certainly counts as one of these. Here Zeitouni demonstrated nice control and shaping of, for example, the grand fanfare-like ending of the central “maggiore” section in the second movement Funeral March. The principal winds on the whole played splendidly, oboist Stephen Hammer producing fine work in the Beethoven as in the Haydn symphony, and Eric Hoeprich providing a lyrical first clarinet throughout the “Eroica.” The horns, led by Richard Menaul, significantly improved their fielding percentage for the evening in this work and sounded very good in the famous section solos of the trio. (Zeitouni, in his note, claimed that the “Eroica” was the first symphony to call for three horns, but Vanhal is supposed to have done so in his A-minor symphony of ca. 1777; I have not seen or heard it.)

I felt that the fugue-like passage within the “minore” section of the second movement was allowed to rush ever so slightly, thereby losing some of its intensity. And the third movement scherzo as usual started too fast, perhaps also too quietly to be heard clearly out past the first few rows of seats in the hall, although it came into focus soon enough. The performance of the first variation in the final movement by soloists instead of the full string section — a departure from Beethoven’s score that one hears from time to time, perhaps suggested by another variation passage in his Choral Fantasia that is actually written this way — was too clean and elegant to draw any objections from this listener. But it is hard for any performance to maintain the requisite unbroken concentration (or intonation) throughout this sprawling movement. Although it was well played — with some impressive passagework from principal flutist Christopher Krueger — perhaps this huge symphony was not placed most effectively at the end of a longer-than-usual program.

The Mozart Mass movement that opened the evening was, as John Finney told the audience before conducting it, a “preview” of the complete performance scheduled for April 27 and 29 (with the regular Handel and Haydn chorus). The reduced orchestral forces adequately supported the 60 or so student singers, and Teresa Wakim’s clear soprano sounded beautifully above the other soloists (Susan Consoli will sing in her place on Sunday). It would be oafish to complain that one could tell who had a kid singing onstage by observing which members of the audience stood up as soon as the last Amen was sung.

David Schulenberg is a harpsichordist and author of Music of the Baroque and The Keyboard Music of J. S. Bach. He teaches at Wagner College in New York City. His website is here.

 

5 Comments

  1. This was the cleanest and most satisfyingly straightforward live performance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony that I’ve heard, including one by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique led by John Eliot Gardiner last October at Carnegie Hall in New York.

    looks like most of the music teachers, players are much easier to please than I am.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — February 19, 2012 at 4:40 pm

  2. It was the worst H&H concert overall and one of the most atrocious “interpretations”, if I may use this word, of both Haydn and Beethoven.   The horn was audibly taking wrong notes at the wrong times, and the whole orchestra played without any hint of expression, being wan and exhausted.  The conductor was emitting sounds all the time which was incredibly annoying and destructive.  In short, it was so bad that we ignominiously retreated after the first movement of this “Eroica” which was really just a caricature on the great symphony.  It is a pity that it was so bad.  This concert damaged H&H reputation in my eyes. 
    And the fact that thee send out e-mails exhalting this horrible performance is even more deplorable.  Yet those who had ears have heard all the disaster that cannot be covered by petty e-mails.  What a shame on H&H!
     

    Comment by John Baruch — February 22, 2012 at 2:40 pm

  3. Totally agree with the horn comment. The sound was horrible.

    The woodwind was horrible too. Only the flute was fine.

    The worst was the coda. The first violins were collectively out of the tune at the closing bars, making the hero sound like a clown.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — February 22, 2012 at 5:01 pm

  4. I think I was sitting right behind this “John Baruch” during this performance – in the row ahead of me, an effected, pint-sized personage (with his date in tow) crept into orchestra seats at intermission which he (and she) obviously hadn’t paid for.  They then began to enact for the rest of us a mimed drama seemingly intended to convey their disdain for the performance.  This included dramatic gestures into the air, eye-rollings directed at their neighbors, and constant whispers to each other, along the lines of “No, no, NO!!” This went on without interruption, through the entirety of the first movement; occasionally they would even clutch their ears, or grip each other’s hands in aesthetic pain.  It would have been funny if it hadn’t been so damn distracting.  Fortunately this duo did indeed beat an “ignominious” retreat at the first break in the music, though – again with melodramatic affectations of “flight,” I will mention; the date even cast her arm over her head as if she were fleeing a hailstorm. Upon their departure, however, there was much rejoicing in the nearby rows, along with declamations like “Thank God!” and “What jerks!.”  And then we all settled down again to enjoy the rest of this wonderful performance.

    Comment by Thomas Garvey — February 25, 2012 at 4:28 pm

  5. Oops!  Meant “affected” instead of “effected” in that earlier comment!  I hate it when I make that mistake.  ;-)

    Comment by Thomas Garvey — February 25, 2012 at 10:01 pm

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