in: Reviews

November 2, 2013

Three Old Favorites, Brilliantly Performed

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In his first appearance with Handel and Haydn Society since 2008, Grant Llewellyn, the society’ s music director from 2001 to 2006, returned Friday night to  Symphony Hall. Llewellyn directed the society’ s Period Instrument Orchestra in Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony, Haydn’s Symphonie Concertante, and Beethoven’s Second Symphony. The program will be repeated Sunday at 3.

A nearly full house responded enthusiastically to the evening’s offerings, all crowd-pleasers. Although none ranks among its composer’s most important or profound works, each gives the orchestra a workout, providing numerous opportunities for both sections and soloists to shine. The orchestra, particularly the strings, rose to the occasion, sounding as well as I can remember it in recent years, with not a single glitch that is worth writing about.

Why, then, was your reviewer not as buoyed by this performance as the great majority of listeners clearly were, energetically applauding these brilliant performances of three bright major-key works? Some readers will doubtless ascribe my reticence to sheer perversity or axe-grinding. I will not deny that for me this concert raised the same questions that I have brought up previously about “period” performance under a modern-style conductor. But my demurral is also a matter of wondering just how much delight a listener can derive from performances of old favorites that have little new to say about the music. H & H is a venerable and valuable part of our region’s cultural establishment, and it serves its musical and educational missions well and seriously. Yet I miss the excitement that one felt at times in the past when old repertory was performed in new ways, or when unfamiliar music was imaginatively programmed.

Mozart’s D-major symphony K. 385, known as the “Haffner” after the family friend who commissioned it, is unusually ebullient and fully scored. (As noted in the booklet, it is his only symphony to use what would afterward become the standard eight woodwinds, albeit only in the outer movements.) In some respects the work is closer to an opera overture of the time than to a symphony, though the two genres were hardly distinct when Mozart wrote it in 1782.

The strings passed their auditions here, playing with great precision in the quick outer movements, despite the now-customary blazing tempos. Yet I sensed little of the harmonic tension and drama that Mozart creates (even in this generally bright work) by occasional excursions into minor keys or through the chromatic tones—each an opportunity for an expressive accent—that he fits into the melody of the second movement. Why bother, then, to take both repeats of the Andante, which in this performance seemed long even when executed almost quickly?

In the Haydn work, concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky executed the solo violin part with great energy and precision, alongside equally capable contributions by cellist Guy Fishman, oboist Stephen Hammer, and bassoonist Andrew Schwartz, all principals of their respective sections. Horns John Boden and John Aubrey, and trumpets Bruce Hall and Jesse Levine, were at times almost equally soloists in the outer movements, and played as rousingly. Yet energy and precision are not all that this work demands.

Haydn did not bring the same imagination to this piece that he did to his “London” symphonies of the same period (ca. 1792). Yet therefore all the more reason for the soloists to demonstrate some of the playfulness and interaction that to my ears were lacking in this rendition. Even the recitatives that the solo violinist interjects within the last movement lacked the quasi-operatic drama that Salomon, Haydn’s original soloist, would have taken for granted. But instead of milking the pregnant pauses for all they are worth, the re-entrances of the orchestra after the soloist’ s interjections sometimes seemed slightly rushed, leaving the dialog between soloist and tutti understated at best. The same ever-so-slight rushing seemed to afflict the Beethoven as well, with hardly a moment’ s notice given to the work’ s sometimes remarkable transitions, particularly in the Larghetto second movement.

I confess that I have not heard the orchestra enough in recent years to be able to judge whether the failure to make more of the music should be laid at the feet of the conductor or of the players. I would imagine that the avoidance of nuance and the reticence really to sing, are products of both straight-ahead, unimaginative direction and players’ tacit understanding that performances of this sort have become a norm—something unavoidable in modern concert organizations in which one spends precious little time actually rehearsing, let alone responding to one another musically.

Yet there is nothing either historically “authentic” or musically meaningful in performing this music metronomically, particularly at the breakneck tempos that prevailed Friday night. One unfortunate product of bringing together players to perform under a guest conductor after just a few rehearsals is that the music may tend to be broken into short-winded little phrases, rather than extending into more meaningful sentences and paragraphs. The latter require players who think and feel the music more organically than when they are merely following a conductor. The players of H & H are uniformly superb musicians, and each understands how to do more than this. Yet I’m not sure how one gets any orchestra, “period” or mainstream, to do otherwise these days. I did appreciate the singing of principal clarinettist Erich Hoeprich in the second and fourth movements of the Beethoven. But all too often the winds seemed to avoid anything resembling a really long line, and all too often the strings seemed merely dutiful.

What would be truly exciting would be to see a return to the spirit of invention and experimentalism that marked the first efforts toward “period” performance of Classical repertory—especially the big-orchestra music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. I think, for example, of H & H’ s first “period” instrument performances several decades ago, and those of other bands whose directors abandoned their ego-boosting position on the podium in favor of direction from a harpsichord or fortepiano. It’s true that many such performances still suffered from the attempts by the pianist-director to conduct from the keyboard, which was sometimes more a visual prop than an actual sounding part of the ensemble. (Last night’s performance completely lacked the fortepiano, which I missed especially in the quieter passages of the Haydn work.)

If one insists on conducting these works in the modern manner, then why not actually interpret the music, as was taken for granted in the later 19th century and through most of the 20th? On the other hand, what would happen if, instead, the director led from the keyboard in collaboration with the leader (the concertmaster), as we know was done by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven—at least as long as he retained his hearing? What would happen if the orchestra followed with their ears, creatively—and if a soloist, rather than fitting her arpeggios to the beat of a conductor, led the orchestra with them, and they responded in way that was not merely note-perfect? It may be that actual historical performances were less precise than today’s—but we don’t expect recording-quality precision from a jazz band, nor did concert-goers before the age of digital recording. What they evidently did expect, and what I think we now lack, is the sort of spontaneity and creativity that is still taken to be a part of jazz (even if that isn’t actually always the case).

Modern “period” orchestras such as H & H’s have now turned their brand of “historically informed” performance into a routine. But in fact we still have much to learn about how this music was actually performed. And I suspect that there is still much to be made of it creatively and artistically, by experimenting with such things as historical seating arrangements and collaborative rehearsal and direction techniques. There is an element of risk in that, and players and directors would have to leave their comfort zones. So, too, would presenting organizations and their supporters. But I cannot imagine a presenter better prepared to do this sort of thing than H & H, which was once in the forefront of enlivening our cultural scene and broadening our perspective on our musical heritage.

A few closing words on the pre-concert talk by Teresa Neff (who also provided the very fine program notes). Her well-attended lecture was well presented and well documented, illustrated with just the right mix of period pictures and audio examples. I do wish that she had had more to say about the major work on the program—Beethoven’ s Second—rather than focusing on biographical matter that related more to the relatively minor Mozart and Haydn works. General audiences, especially those with a large proportion of subscribers, always find it easiest to take in stories about composers and their patrons. But the Second Symphony is remarkable less for having been composed when Beethoven was in the throes of a personal crisis than for standing on the cusp of the transition from his so-called Early to his so-called Middle Period. Indeed, it shows an astonishing development over his First Symphony in both formal aspects and the treatment of the orchestra.

Neff began her talk appropriately by quoting Count Waldstein’s famous dictum that Beethoven was to “receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn.” Waldstein’s remark was remarkable for being made at a time when Mozart was still seen as “difficult,” hardly the universally popular composer that he is today. There are occasional darker moments in both the “Haffner” and Beethoven’s Second, as well as a great deal of ingenious counterpoint. I don’t think it would have spoiled the fun to mention such things, even while making clear that all three composers succeeded in pleasing the crowd with these ever-lively and generally brilliant compositions.

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.

4 Comments

  1. This concert did not open the H and H season. The season was opened at the end of September with a stunning B Minor Mass conducted by Harry Christophers.

    Comment by Philip Johnson — November 2, 2013 at 6:12 pm

  2. Philip Johnson is right and the publisher apologizes. His editorial memory was apparently too short to remember Brian Jones’ very positive review of the H and H opener here

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 2, 2013 at 6:35 pm

  3. Let’s pursue this! The review asks for freer interpretation, to complement technical prowess. Is that more likely to come from the “regular” conductor than from a guest – even one who used to be the “regular?” Did H&H play more freely under Grant Llewellyn when he was the music director? Do they play more freely under Harry Christophers now?

    Comment by LoisL — November 3, 2013 at 10:44 am

  4. Seems like there’s a consensus that Christophers is more dramatic

    Comment by denovo2 — November 3, 2013 at 12:48 pm

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