It’s one thing when feet start tapping to the downbeat, quite another when they’re pounding along with sixteenth notes. The difference was obvious with guest conductor Bernard Labadie leading the Handel and Haydn Society orchestra on Friday night at Symphony Hall. In a program of 18th-century symphonies, capped off by Mozart’s famous “Jupiter,” Labadie reminded audiences of a time when the symphony was a compact, direct and new experience.
The symphony is now often compared to the novel in terms of scope as well as the culmination of an artist’s technical and expressive talents. While not lacking in grandeur or contrasts, Rigel’s Symphony in C Minor (Op. 12, No. 4) and Krauss’s Symphony in E Minor (VB 141) came across more like compelling short stories, with occasional hints of a big band dance number. Both three-movement, minor key works in the Sturm ünd Drang style (too often heard as a stylistic weigh station on the way to bigger and better things) featured sturdy orchestration, incisive rhythms and vivid, at times downright startling colors.
The Rigel began with pulsating bass lines and swooping violins, with a pastoral second movement topped off by chilling repeated notes and a scurrying third movement no doubt intended to leave audiences jangled. Krauss’s more humorous work saddled an angular, strutting minor key theme next to a finicky major (with the orchestra adding a slight but effective emphasis on the upbeat). The blustery third movement kept parting ways for a giggly, three-note “beep-bop-boop” from the violins.
Rigel and Krauss are obviously lesser known composers but one couldn’t tell from the way Labadie and the Handel and Haydn ensemble appreciated their straightforward style. Every note was an end in itself, for example the nervous little accents on the violins’ entrances or the warm inner parts in the lyrical but forward-moving slow movements (with tight, glistening first and second violins a highlight in the middle movement of the Krauss).
Labadie took Haydn’s Symphony No. 26 in D Minor in an appropriately more spacious direction. Nicknamed the “Lamentatione” for its use of a sacred chant in both first and second movements, this work offers more opportunities for reflection and atmospheric harmonies than zippy, storm-tossed moments. Here and throughout the program, the Handel and Haydn winds materialized in a variety of vibrant, cohesive configurations. Big brass blasts in the first movement and deliciously nasal reeds (can modern instruments ever simulate that combination of warmth and bite?) in the trance-like second movement were just a few highlights. Labadie showed off the orchestras’ textural and dynamic gifts in the closing “Menuet” and humorously hiccupping “Trio.”
All of these stylistic and performance nuances came to a head after intermission for the headline work of the evening, Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C Major (K. 551, “Jupiter”). Mozart’s last symphony was composed after a two year hiatus from writing symphonies, and incorporates the contrasts and use of rests explored by composers such as Rigel and Krauss, Mozart’s studies of Bachian counterpoint, his work reorchestrating Handel’s oratorios and his operatic experience of the 1780s. Despite being the only major key work listed on the program, Mozart’s tonal trickiness and dramatic effects made it seem like a logical extension of the minor key works heard earlier that night (those shorter works also gave the infamous “too many notes” comment directed at Mozart some context).
Labadie fused all of these influences while also highlighting the rhythmic vitality, humor and sheer beauty of this great work. He milked big, climactic tuttis for all they’re worth but allowed themes to fade away gracefully and gradually, as though endlessly getting softer until they didn’t stop so much as continue to fall beyond the audience’s ear. His tempo in the second movement “Andante Cantabile” reminded that “Andante” is literally a “walking” speed, adding momentum to some of Mozart’s most simply gorgeous turns of phrase, with slightly edgy viola accents adding tension. The “Menuetto” contrasted a light, practically gravity-defying feel with weightier textures snapping into place, and the fourth and final “Molto Allegro” combined sheer motor energy with perfect part separation for Mozart’s rich contrapuntal writing.
“Jupiter” was one of the works that solidified Mozart’s image in the nineteenth century as a serious composer. Friday night’s intelligent, sensitive performance emphasized the side of Mozart as a brilliant, young spirit playing with sound in ways his contemporaries could only begin to imagine. Plus, it turned out to be great exercise for the ankles.
This program repeats on Sunday at 3:00 pm in Symphony Hall.
Andrew J. Sammut also writes for Early Music America and All About Jazz and covers the “pop of yestercentury” on his blog, Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic. He also plays clarinet and lives in Cambridge.