It’s reassuring to see how much classical audience there is in greater Boston. Symphony Hall is filled night after night; Thursday the BSO gave a French program, and then for a completely different audience on Friday, H + H did Beethoven. On this particular night, Andras Schiff played at Jordan Hall while Così fan tutte treaded the boards at the BU Theater.
My first visit to H + H in their 201 years in town and my 50 was billed as “All Beethoven,” but in keeping with the Society’s name, the Friday night concert in Symphony Hall began with a chorus, “How Excellent Thy Name,” from Handel’s Saul. Although short, less than five minutes, it was an excellent performance, bright and strong, with the combined Collaborative Youth Concert Choruses (representing five high schools) ably conducted by Andrew Clark. About a hundred singers were distributed SBTA left to right, so that the imitative entries were separated spatially. H&H’s orchestra of period instruments, with 8-7-6-5-4 strings, had a fine historical sound that is warm and rich to today’s ears, if not as massive as a Mahler-Schoenberg orchestra. I especially liked the confident strings, the crisp oboe, and the old-style hand-tuned timpani with resonant calfskin drumheads and on wooden cradles. I couldn’t see the straight trumpet, but I certainly heard it.
The most radical adjustment required of the average listener familiar only with modern instruments, might have to the reduced volume of the fortepiano, a replica from 20 years ago of an 1805 German instrument. Robert Levin, renowned pianist and fortepianist (also adviser to this publication), writer and professor took the solo role in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. Despite the lower and narrower dynamic level, one could hear everything with perfect clarity, even in the una corda second movement where the perceived decibels might seem like a hushed pppp read off the page. One striking aspect of the fortepiano was how different a melody in octaves sounds from single notes. There was no booming piano bass, and one recognized that this concerto, which is opposite to the heroic dimension of the Third and Fifth, emphasizes the contemplative, even philosophical chamber-orchestra dialogue. (The good program notes by Teresa Neff don’t mention the supposed connection of the slow movement with the Orpheus legend, an interpretation that today is both convincing and controversial.) Levin’s effortless mastery of the difficult fingerwork was entirely persuasive, especially at the relatively fast tempi chosen for both the first and last movements, but the calmer, lyrical mood of the second and third themes of the first movement also received elegant expression. The conductor, Richard Egarr, also deserves congratulation for precise control of the ensemble and good coordination with the soloist. (One criticism: the strings’ downward triplet-eighth accompaniment at the beginning of the development in the first movement, while the piano furiously boils upward in sextuplet sixteenths, need to be heard much more prominently.)
Levin composes and improvises his own cadenzas, and his spontaneity, as he said in an interview, is “fraught with risk.” None was apparent last night in the first-movement cadenza, which was well-shaped with melodic materials at hand, and better-proportioned, perhaps, than the overly long written-out cadenza by Beethoven himself. In the finale, I thought that the first cadenza stretched out the dominant preparation one or two seconds too long, and the second cadenza had a too thick lefthand texture, striving, as it were, for the sound of a bigger piano; but these are minor carping points, because the sound was entirely refreshing.
It’s particularly interesting that the beginning of the Rondo finale on C major, the subdominant of the main key of G, precisely echoes the rondo of the composer’s own Cello Sonata Op. 5 No. 2 in harmonic progression—and in the same key. As if to confirm this, as soon as the piano enters, it is accompanied by a sustained C bass, played not by the cello section but by a solo cello. I’m convinced that Beethoven was honoring his work from 12 years earlier.
After the intermission Richard Egarr led a gratifying performance of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral. If I have complained in these pages about conductors’ tendency to bounce on their toes and exaggerate their arm gestures, I didn’t mind it so much here, because Egarr used both arms, but separately, for control of beat and dynamics. He did not deploy a stick, and this gave him more freedom for independent control, in a manner that I’d like to see more of with larger orchestras. (He should rein in his expressive left little finger.) He did a good job ensuring that the strings did not excessively cover the woodwinds, which is always a hazard. At times I felt that the orchestra responded with accents that were too loud, but some of this may be a concomitant of the style of period instruments. It was strange to see some (not all) of the violinists and violists grasping the bow well above the frog, but this is part of classical playing technique. The wind sound was, in a word, wonderful: the flute warm and clear, the oboe sparkling and edgy and the clarinet likewise, especially in the third movement. The bassoon spoke with a lupine growl rather than a discreet puff; the high-register horns negotiated the peasants’ merrymaking with total confidence. When the thunderstorm hit, the timpani, played with wooden sticks, resounded with frightening violence; at that point, I was watching the 16th-note fingering of the double basses, which seemed quite impossible to play (the cellos are playing quintuplets!), but Beethoven certainly knew what he was doing. There were two trombones, alto and tenor, natural instruments without extra tubing, and seated close to the front of the stage they could play at a reassuring ff without shouting.
It’s hard to imagine how either of these works might have sounded at their premieres, at Beethoven’s Akademie concert on December 22, 1808, at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, along with those of the Fifth Symphony and the Choral Fantasy (whose beginning might be a good approximation of how Beethoven improvised). The composer, famous throughout Europe but already quite deaf, was the soloist, and one wonders how the orchestra kept up. Also on the program were the Gloria, Sanctus and Benedictus from the Mass in C, composed the year before, and the concert aria “Ah, perfido!”, composed and premiered in 1796. One wonders, too, how the audience had the stamina, but Beethoven demanded endurance, and usually he got it. None needed for this fine H&H outing.