in: Reviews

January 25, 2014

Two-and-a-half Symphonies Plus Overture

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Richard Egarr (file photo)

Richard Egarr (file photo)

Guest conductor Richard Egarr led the Handel and Haydn Society’s Period-Instrument Orchestra at Symphony Hall last night in a program that was curtailed owing to the withdrawal of the principal soloist yet quite satisfying nevertheless. Two major symphonies written about a decade apart, plus a minor one probably from the same period, were to have been heard alongside Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto played by English superstar Alison Balsom. Her illness, announced several days before the concert, led to the substitution of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, a shorter piece but one resulting in perhaps a more balanced program.

One of his less familiar tragedies, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus was the basis for a Napoleonic-era adaptation by Austrian dramatist Heinrich Joseph von Collin. Beethoven’s 1807 overture for Collin’s play is dark and intensely dramatic, allied in style with the Fifth Symphony, which is in the same key and the next orchestral composition. The overture followed by just one year the Fourth Symphony, which Beethoven premiered on the same Vienna concert and which also closed last night’s concert. Both works, then, are masterpieces of Beethoven’s middle period, in which he moved beyond the manner of his earlier compositions, which to us sound Haydnesque or Mozartean but were probably closer in inspiration to music by Hummel and others now regarded as early Romantics.

Hence the Beethoven works are quite distant in style from Haydn’s Symphony no. 104, which was the other major piece on the program. Composed in 1795, Haydn’s last symphony is arguably not the finest or most original of the dozen such that he wrote for his two famous London concert series. Yet it does seem to be played more frequently these days than others from those sets, and it might well have made for an interesting pairing with the Trumpet Concerto, composed the following year and just about Haydn’s final orchestral work.

The last time I heard Richard Egarr with H&H, in 2011, they performed Beethoven’s Fifth (I missed his Seventh Symphony last spring). On that occasion, Egarr directed from the fortepiano inasmuch as the program included a Haydn keyboard concerto with himself as soloist. Last night, however, Egarr chose to conduct in the modern, or rather later-19th-century, fashion. In fact it is difficult to imagine a work as complex and difficult as the Fourth Symphony being led successfully in historical fashion, jointly by pianist and concertmaster. It seems precisely the type of revolutionary composition, familiar from 20th-century experience, in which performance problems arise that cannot be solved using the practices of its own time. Yet that cannot have been true of the earlier works on the program, and I did miss the subtle effect that a fortepiano can add to the bass line, especially in slow or quiet passages even in Haydn’s late works.

Be this as it may, Egarr played his role as conductor with great energy, leading without a baton but with occasional stamping of the floor, beginning with the opening beat of the Coriolan overture. It received a gutsy performance, with precision work from not only the violins but the violas and cellos—impressive not least for having been put together on short notice. Alas, despite Egarr’s plea to the audience to cough elsewhere, the overture’s dramatically quiet ending was marred by extraneous sounds in the hall—though not so badly as the minuet of the Haydn. There, a sneeze timed to take place during a pregnant silence elicited a sotto voce “Bless you” from the conductor.

One concern during both the Beethoven overture and the ensuing Haydn symphony was that the ferocious energy occasionally seemed to produce the slightest rushing, especially at pauses or in the split seconds between phrases. At such moments, even the slightest impatience can weaken the drama of passages that otherwise might gain in intensity from a controlled push forward. Was it again impatience, or rather the economics of presenting a somewhat longer than usual program, that led to the skipping of repeats in the outer movements of the Haydn? This deprived us of hearing a little joke when the Finale turns back to the beginning, in a little four-bar passage that got omitted.

It was, in any case, welcome to hear some expressive pauses and rubatos at several points in the last two movements of the Haydn. Still, I’m not sure we needed it twice in the Finale, and the familiar Romantic gesture of drawing out the first two notes of the theme in the Trio seems to have gotten out of hand, even though oboist Stephen Hammer played it beautifully.

More problematical was the occasional sense that the players were focusing a bit too much on accurately hammering out each beat rather than blending their notes with one another or into longer lines. Doubtless contributing to this were the lively tempos taken even in slow movements. The Finale, for instance, is marked Spiritoso; rarely used by Haydn, the term does not necessarily imply great speed. I wondered what the movement would sound like if understood as a transformation of the gentle old musette. That French dance was inspired by the pastoral bagpipe, represented by a drone played throughout the movement by the cellos and horns (the latter, incidentally, sounded wonderful, here and elsewhere). Even the Andante seemed just a little rushed, not the actual tempo, perhaps, but the strong articulation of every beat. That said, the Haydn received a solid performance, with impressive playing especially by principal flutist Christopher Krueger in the last movement, which is practically a flute concerto.

Beethoven’s Fourth is possibly the least-heard of his symphonies. It is certainly not the delicacy that Schumann took it to be. But its combination of good humor and profound mystery, already articulated in the slow introduction, is less immediately accessible than the explicit heroism or tragedy of other middle period works. This performance focused on the humor, although the Adagio had some beautiful moments. That movement is hard to bring off; its very busy accompaniment and its melodic filligree, both recalling the decorative character of slow movements in some of Beethoven’s early piano sonatas, tend to distract from a long, sustained line, although the latter was ably projected in Anthony Pay’s clarinet solos.

Beethoven’s tempo mark for the final movement is Allegro ma non troppo (“not too fast”), which would be ambiguous had he not later specified a metronome marking. This performance was about 50 percent quicker than Beethoven later indicated. His metronome markings are controversial, but even more than the Haydn Finale, this is a movement that I would like someday to hear not too fast. Years ago, Pierre Boulez directed a now rare but famous recording of Beethoven’s Fifth in which he took the first movement well below the usual tempo. The result was neither beautiful nor expressive to most ears, and it clearly was not historically authentic. But it did lay bare the composer’s musical ideas, some of which we lose sight of when we hear the music performed according to modern convention.

Perhaps because this Finale is taken to be a big joke, perhaps because passages in it show up on audition tests for orchestral players, conductors tend to take it too fast. Even in an accurate performance, doing so turns many of the intricate chromatic lines into a blur. This performance was technically secure on the whole, but at this speed I think that some some passages are simply beyond the capacity of any musician to render both accurately and musically. Of course, this makes it exciting, and audiences love it. Certainly Beethoven was a pioneer in writing music whose effect simply cannot be achieved without pushing players a bit beyond their capacity. But I wonder whether the demonic effect of this movement would not be even more intense if played as Beethoven indicated it to be. A period instrument orchestra ought at least to try that, even at the risk of emulating Boulez.

The minor work on the program, which opened the second half, was a short three-movement Sinfonia in G Major by, grandson of Johann Sebastian and the last musician of the family. The composer’s father was Johann Christoph Friedrich, least-known of Sebastian’s four composer sons. But WFE studied with two of his uncles, Johann Christian and Carl Philipp Emanuel, and the latter probably had something to do with his obtaining a position at the Prussian royal court.

I don’t know on what basis WFE’s work is claimed to date from the 1780s. From its remoteness from the styles of both JC and CPE (and from that of his own father), I would guess that it is later. Unfortunately, it is in a rather generic Classical style, flirting with the early Romantic. It occasionally sounds like late Haydn or even early Schubert, then, but without much distinctiveness or originality. Egarr prefaced the performance by describing it as “very, very, very delightful music,” which I’m sure it was meant to be. But if one is looking for Bach novelties, WFE’s “Columbus” cantata, or any of his father’s (JCFB) symphonies might have been more interesting as well as more delightful.

David Schulenberg’s book The Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach will be published later this year by the University of Rochester Press. He has also written books on the music of W. F. Bach and the keyboard music of J. S. Bach, as well as the textbook Music of the Baroque. A performer on harpsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano, he teaches at Wagner College and at The Juilliard School, both in New York City; his website is here.

3 Comments

  1. On Sunday afternoon, I thought the second movement of the Beethoven 4th was taken too fast. On an unrelated note, I think the third and fourth movements of the symphony are some of the worst stuff Beethoven ever wrote and the first isn’t much better. Perhaps with everything else he was writing around the time of the 4th, the creative well had run dry.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — January 26, 2014 at 9:45 pm

  2. “Beethoven’s Fourth is possibly the least-heard of his symphonies. It is certainly not the delicacy that Schumann took it to be.”

    Does the first line has to be said every time the 1st, 2nd, 4th or 8th is performed? There is no piece out of the great 9s is least heard, as least for anyone who can claim to love classical music.

    Not sure what the second line means, but I hope it is not another shameful example of great music incivility, after some reviewer calling Brahms VC a boring piece.

    Joe, season tickets does not mean seasoned ears for sure.

    Comment by Thorsten — January 27, 2014 at 4:09 pm

  3. “Joe, season tickets does not mean seasoned ears for sure.”

    Fer sher!

    OTOH, cryptic.

    But, maybe what you were thinking was that the first, third, and fourth movements of the Be4 are better than they sound to me. If so, I’m curious to know what compositions of his, outside of the rarely performed, you think are worse.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — January 27, 2014 at 9:13 pm

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