The Boston Classical Orchestra under Steven Lipsitt made its contribution to the Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner bicentenaries on Saturday in Faneuil Hall. It was praiseworthy that the organization chose, instead of the seemingly inevitable opera excerpts, two of the relatively rare non-operatic works of these two giants of the opera world: Verdi’s String Symphony in E Minor (an expansion of his String Quartet) and Wagner’s five Wesendonck Lieder. Rounding off the program the orchestra returned to its “Classical” roots with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 36. The extremely live acoustics of Faneuil Hall variously bedeviled or enhanced performances that were overall very accomplished.
In November 1872 Verdi was in Naples to supervise the local premier of his Aida; this, however, had to be postponed for three weeks due to the illness of the prima donna. In the interim the composer occupied himself by writing his only string quartet, purely for his own enjoyment (it remained unpublished and not publicly performed for many years). The more sustained melodies, played here with finesse and affection, were a compelling argument for the expansion to a string orchestra, with only occasional blurred passagework reminding us that Verdi wrote the piece for four players, not nineteen. The Andantino second movement was especially delectable with considerable nuance of dynamics and articulation. Perhaps the “joke” of the scherzo (Scherzo. Fuga) was placing it as the fourth and final movement, but the result was that we had two scherzos in a row. In fact, the third movement was in the more traditional scherzo form, ABA with trio in the middle; Lipsitt sensibly took the Prestissimo tempo marking with more than a grain of salt. The final scherzo cum fugue is a typical Verdi fugue (if there is such an animal), devolving before long into fragments of the subject repeated at some length, perhaps overstaying its welcome but also affording the players ample opportunity to demonstrate their virtuosity in well-calibrated delicate playing at a very rapid tempo.
Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder were written at the same time (1857-58) as his seminal opera Tristan und Isolde, to texts by Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of Otto Wesendonck, one of the composer’s patrons. For these beautiful songs we were blessed to have the soprano Jane Eaglen, internationally renowned exponent of many of Wagner’s great heroines. A voice of this amplitude and power is infrequently heard in our city, one of the early music capitols of the world. Yet it should be noted that although sopranos frequently sing these songs, the tessitura fits the mezzo-soprano range better; the orchestra and Lipsitt were, alas, not always sensitive to this in the extended passages that lie low, sometimes leading to inaudibility of text and overly frequent breaths. Fortunately, this fault was offset by the luxuriant colors and luscious harmonies of the orchestra as well as the varied moods and opulent sound of Eaglen’s singing. Among numerous high points, I’d single out the great dramatic arc of the second song, Stehe still! (Stand Still!) from harried agitation to serene rapture; the resigned ennui of the third, Im Treibhaus (In the Hothouse); and the positively sybaritic final song, Träume (Dreams), whose high-cholesterol harmonies were smoothly blended among the different instrumental choirs and inspired Eaglen to her most seductive singing. It is no surprise that Wagner incorporated much music from Träume (along with its theme of expiring in a dream of love) into Tristan und Isolde. In these atmospheric mood pieces, the live Faneuil Hall acoustics were an asset, evoking the ambiance of a considerably larger concert hall.
Fortunately, we had an intermission during which to reawaken gradually from Wagnerian dreams. In a program that proceeded in reverse chronological order, we finished with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 (1802). The pre-concert lecturer Mary Ann Nichols noted that this symphony was created about the same time that Faneuil Hall was undergoing a refurbishment! So successful was Lipsitt’s and the BCO’s differentiation of Wagner’s and Beethoven’s radically different sound-worlds that there was little sense of “back on home turf” in the symphony. Nichols had also mentioned that this was the last of Beethoven’s backwards-looking symphonies with their debt to Haydn and Mozart, though already the young composer is enjoying breaking a rule from time to time. This was a vigorous reading that could also take time to reflect where appropriate. The outer movements were taken at exciting tempi at the inconsequential cost of occasional minor lapses of ensemble. The second movement Larghetto, one of Beethoven’s most beautiful slow movements, was played with affection and beauty of tone. The woodwinds, particularly, made a lovely, rustic sound. It is an interesting parallel to the Verdi that Beethoven’s fourth and final movement also has the jocularity of a scherzo although, unlike the third movement (the “official” scherzo), its thematic development gives it symphonic scope. Seeming entirely unfatigued, Lipsitt’s players never flagged in the high-energy motoric rhythms (except the few places where the score directs), driving right through to the end without ritard. Once the audience caught its collective breath, the applause was appropriately vociferous.