Japanese conductor Masaaki Suzuki is celebrated for his recordings of Bach choral works with the Bach Collegium Japan, which he founded in 1990. He has recorded Mozart and Stravinsky as well, and conducted at least one Mahler symphony I know of, the Fourth. All the same, it was a surprise to find him opening the Handel and Haydn Society’s 2017-2018 season with a program of Haydn and Beethoven. As it turned out, we had a pleasant surprise last night.
I had heard Suzuki in Symphony Hall once before, in 2011, when he led the BSO in an intense performance of Bach’s St. John Passion. The bill this time out was Haydn’s last symphony, No. 104, and Beethoven’s last, the Ninth. Haydn’s Symphony No. 103, which Andris Nelsons and the BSO performed two weeks back, has the Drumroll nickname, but No. 104 has even more thunderous timpani. It premiered in London in 1795, and if doesn’t altogether storm the heavens, it does point toward what Beethoven would be aiming at seven years later with his Eroica. Beethoven may not have learned anything from his lessons with Haydn, as he later sometimes claimed, but he certainly took something from Haydn’s symphonies.
Nelsons’s Haydn had a modest string section of 38. Suzuki had just 33, with first and second violins seated antiphonally, basses behind the firsts, woodwinds centered, French horns to the conductor’s left, trumpets to his right. At 7:30, when the concert was due to start, not a single orchestra member was on stage. At 7:35, the players came out en masse, European-style, to tumultuous applause, did a brief tuning, and were ready to go by 7:38.
The 104th opens with a stentorian fanfare from full orchestra. What follows teases, now mellow, now roaring again. You hardly know what to expect when a mysteriously keening oboe leads from this introduction into the first subject, but it surely isn’t the lilting, genial melody Haydn serves up. Just when you’re thinking the movement is going to be a pleasant stroll through London’s Hyde Park, the orchestra erupts in military splendor. Even the second subject is a surprise: it’s simply the first transposed from D to A major.
Suzuki’s introduction had drama but the level was contained, with the result that his first subject was more continuation than jolt. The development, tender and full of color, showed a balance that allowed the winds to stand out. It was almost too genial, but then Suzuki started to underline the second half of the theme, an insistent, unsettling four notes that Mahler might have had in mind when he composed the sleighbell motif that opens his Fourth Symphony. By the end I was wondering whether Suzuki hadn’t underplayed the first half of the movement on purpose.
The slow movement is a compact Andante, a kind of clockwork minuet in 2/4. The stately, graceful theme keeps returning, rondo fashion, but the variations take odd turns. A woodwind interlude is brought up short by a martial outburst; then the orchestra breaks into a gallop. Toward the end, the movement envisions new harmonic horizons; the French horns, given the last word, sound as if they want to go on. Suzuki caressed the two parts of the theme, treating them as a shy, delicate question and answer. Paragraphing was subtle but unmistakable, here a touch of suspense, there an easeful sigh.
The Menuet, like that of No. 103, sounds more like a stomping Ländler; Haydn’s little joke is a two-bar pause that ends in a trill in the woodwinds and violins. The Trio is a gemütlich breather, all spinning dirndls. The Spiritoso finale begins with a bass drone that recalls the finale of Symphony No. 82 (the Bear). It’s a high-spirited country dance with a military flavor and wistful second subject for the strings.
In these last two movements Suzuki was more conventional. His Menuet was lusty and fairly quick, but the winds had room to shine in the Trio. His finale presented as rustic and ebullient, as if the genteel constraints of the previous three movements had been thrown off. That second subject looked back to more-pastoral, leisurely pursuits, but was never allowed to linger.
Timing was 28 minutes — period-authentic, with a little breathing room. The 46-piece orchestra had both the attractive weight of a Percheron and the nimblefootedness of a polo pony.
We’re rarely short of Beethoven Ninths. This past August, Christopher Wilkins and the Boston Landmarks Orchestra did it at the Hatch Shell; a few weeks later it was followed by the performance from Nelsons and the BSO at Tanglewood. But hearing the piece played on period instruments always opens a window onto what Beethoven had in mind. He can’t have been thinking of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Eagle,” since that poem wasn’t published till 1851, but its first lines — “He clasps the crag with crooked hands / Close to the sun in lonely lands” — well describe the opening of the symphony, with its lonely pair of French horns in open fifths over tremololike sextuplets in the second violins and cellos. And when the full orchestra bursts in with the plunging first subject, dropping two octaves in a heartbeat, you could readily hear the poem’s last line, “And like a thunderbolt he falls.”
Few performances of the Ninth’s opening movement fall like thunderbolts. In part that’s because we like to view the symphony as the apotheosis of classic music; in part it’s because that movement is a riddle. The first subject is obvious enough, but the restless second thematic group is elusive, and the development is desultory, as if the eagle had flown and the music were scanning the sky for it. Out of nowhere the eagle returns for the recapitulation, which is predatory despite being in D major. The coda finds him back on his crag, looking as enigmatic as ever.
Suzuki had the same orchestral layout as for the Haydn, with two added French horns and trumpets plus piccolo, contrabassoon, trombones, and percussion. His first movement, implacable and Toscanini-tight, featured one tempo throughout. There’s a moment in the development, about six minutes in, that can anticipate Bruckner; here it didn’t. Neither did the coda build the way it can. What the movement did have, like the Haydn, was structure and balance and clarity. It may even have been what Beethoven envisioned. Still, a performance like the one Günter Wand recorded with the NDR Symphony Orchestra shows what a little air and contrast can do.
The Scherzo — marked Molto vivace — went at Beethoven’s stipulated 116 to the bar and was pellucid, ferocious yet without hysteria. The trio of the movement is problematic; Beethoven’s tempo indication is “Presto,” but his metronome mark calls for the same tempo as the Scherzo proper. It’s been speculated that Beethoven actually meant the trio to go twice as fast as the Scherzo. Suzuki, like most conductors, compromised, quick but not double quick.
Following the Scherzo, the chorus — 42 strong — filed in, along with the piccolo and the contrabassoon, and there was another retuning session, over in two minutes. The 4/4 Adagio molto e cantabile was like chamber music, the strings deferring to the woodwinds even in their absence. The 3/4 Andante sections were just perceptibly faster, but everything was so delicately articulated that time seemed to stop. The 12/8 section waltzed; Suzuki did not allow the militant intrusions toward the end to accelerate the tempo.
The finale was cogent. The “An die Freude” theme flowed freely and the bassoon counterpoint was lusciously audible. The chorus, which Suzuki himself prepared, had good enunciation. From where I chose to sit, at the back of the second balcony, the soloists didn’t have much impact. Baritone Dashon Burton was deep, resonant, and orotund; tenor Tom Randle made little impression in the Alla marcia. Soprano Joélle Harvey (substituting on short notice for Karina Gauvin) and mezzo Adriana Zabala joined them in quartet singing that blended well but was unprepossessing.
The Alla marcia, with its Turkish janissary music, started slowly and then sped up, avoiding the question of whether Beethoven intended this section to be really slow (metronome mark) or really fast (Allegro assai vivace tempo indication). “Seid umschlungen” opened up nicely and didn’t drag, but the double fugue in 6/4 (“Freude, schöne Götterfunken”) that followed sounded faster than Beethoven’s 84 half-notes per minute. The Prestissimo coda presents one final perplexity: the metronome mark is 132 half-notes per minute, a steady marchlike tempo that Benjamin Zander, among others, has shown can be quite effective. Suzuki, like most conductors, took the Prestissimo marking at face value, but unlike most conductors, he was able to create excitement while maintaining clarity.
The performance overall ran a reasonable 64 minutes. No part of it was bad; everything breathed conviction, and the Adagio had me rethinking the movement. No small feat in such familiar music.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.