in: Reviews

November 9, 2013

Boston Baroque Illuminates Beethoven

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In Jordan Hall on Friday, Boston Baroque and its music director, Martin Pearlman, opened their 40th season with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D-minor, Op.125. Well beyond the period in the ensemble’s name, the Ninth provided the blueprint for a surprisingly powerful proof that BB could extend the musical and technical skills that the group and its conductor have honed since 1973.

Period performances are far more manifold and varied these days than they were when the Boston Baroque was formed 40 years ago, and it seems almost cliché to point out the now-familiar sonic differences between these and modern-instrument performances.  Pearlman’s program notes—always thoughtful and well-written—also offer the listener helpful insights into the many considerations made in preparing a performance such as this. Still, for someone who knows this work well but has never heard it played on period instruments, the effect can be somewhat like seeing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel after its restoration. At first, the colors seem too bright, almost gaudy in their detail, the looming majesty of it cut through with an X-Acto blade.  But after the initial shock wears off, the vivid clarity illuminates features only hinted at before. Grand luster is made crisp, resulting in a surprisingly intimate hugeness.  Moreover, some of Beethoven’s instrumentation choices do indeed seem to make more sense: reedier bassoons add delicious overtones to the cellos, thinner horns blend beautifully with the woodwinds, shallower timpani punch through the textures like cannon, and the composer’s ingeniously frustrated sense of counterpoint is realized with an oddly edgy smoothness.

Pearlman’s solid interpretation of the work also eschewed most of the late-Romantic broadness that post-Mahler conductors often give the piece. He sailed through the driving first movement with limited rubati and conservative dynamic contrasts, allowing clear, nearly bouncy articulation to move the piece along. It was almost as if he and the orchestra were highly skilled jockeys riding the raw energy inherent Beethoven’s gestural galloping, especially in the recapitulation and coda.  The second movement’s hopping scherzo was even more equine, with the percussive writing for horns, timpani, and flutes sounding like a runaway carousel, and the trio taking on the mood of a springy canter through sunny fields.  The lyrical third movement was also given a sprightlier-than-usual pace. Although this made it occasionally challenging for the violins to stay together, especially as the yearning main melody unfolds with increasingly intricate ornamentation, it did allow the fragmented wind gestures that complement the tune to shine more colorfully. It also had the interesting effect of smoothing over the odd key changes, giving that fascinating feature an unexpectedly natural loveliness.

The final movement is arguably Beethoven’s most successful dramatic vocal work, despite—and maybe in some ways because of—the guffawingly unidiomatic vocal writing. The story it tells is magnificent, Friedrich Schiller’s cloying plea for a Utopia of Brotherhood being the basis of a moody and raucous tour of unbridled brilliance. Along the way, a quartet of vocal soloists and a chorus are expected to perform feats of bravado that nearly burst the envelope of human expression.  Boston Baroque’s chorus was up to the task, delivering a performance of well-balanced sonorities and emotional might.  The quartet consisted of bass-baritone Kevin Deas, who opened with a richly bright voice evoking the unbridled joy that the entire performance captured; tenor William Burden, who rang out a brilliant and rousing call to brotherly heroism (and who now replaces Nicolai Gedda as this reviewer’s favorite interpreter of the part); soprano Leah Partridge, who glided through a soprano part that, by its awkwardly demanding nature, cannot help but overpower the others; and mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero, who made the most of the harmonically important yet somewhat thankless inner voice by complimenting the other soloists with her solid vocal hues. What was most startling about this measured yet emotive performance was that Beethoven’s take on Schiller’s canopy of stars, usually interpreted as a vast and eternal expanse by most conductors, became, under Pearlman’s baton, a swirling mini-galaxy of stellar light.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Elegischer Gesang (Op. 118), a short, gentle gem of funereal melancholy for chorus and strings. Pearlman dedicated the performance to the memories of timpanist John Grimes and hornist Richard Menaul, former members of the Boston Baroque who recently passed away. It was not only a fitting tribute to two fine musicians, but to the longevity and accomplishments of one of the country’s oldest and foremost period instrument ensembles.

Repeats Sunday in special free concert at the Strand Theater in Dorchester.

Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.

3 Comments

  1. A concert viewed through rose-colored spectacles in my opinion. Here is a more realistic view
    http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/2013/11/09/review-boston-baroque-jordan-hall-nov/k8fPUWGr3djRARSa9qi2FJ/story.html

    Comment by Philip Johnson — November 13, 2013 at 10:10 pm

  2. I found the performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Saturday evening thrilling and more than deserving of Dr. Schnauber’s appreciative review. I find it impossible to believe Friday evening’s performance could have been so very different as to deserve the relentless and all-encompassing negative review it received in the Boston Globe on Monday morning. It would have served its readers better if the writer of the review had added to it a disclaimer to the effect that its prejudice against the period performance of Beethoven’s music by a superb conductor, a masterful orchestra, a splendid chorus, and wonderfully gifted soloists should be taken into account by the reader.

    Comment by David Barry — November 14, 2013 at 11:56 am

  3. I don’t see much evidence of prejudice against “period” performance in the Globe review, only run-of the- mill performances – something we all should have.

    Comment by Philip Johnson — November 15, 2013 at 7:05 am

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