With Bernard Labadie at the helm, Guy Fishman as soloist, and a compositional array spanning 1750 to 1807, the Handel and Haydn Society presented its 2,478th concert last night. Top billing went to Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, but Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and C. P. E. Bach’s A Major Cello Concerto had enticed this writer to Symphony Hall last night.
At its premiere in 1807, Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture accompanied a play about a Roman general. Heinrich von Collin’s 1804 Coriolan, like its predecessor Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, tells the story of an exiled Roman general who plots against Rome before re-thinking this plan and falling upon his own sword. Doubtless this tale of shifting political allegiances in an era of uncertainty and upheaval resonated with Europeans living in the sweep and shadow of Napoleon. This is the tale Beethoven captures. Labadie and H+H delivered the overture as impassioned drama: the narrative of a pastoral theme loses a musical battle to declamatory interruptions, punctuations of force and minor-keyed foreboding. Throughout came an abundance of intensity slowly building with suspense and focus to a quiet, gripping conclusion.
H+H’s principal cellist Guy Fishman stepped out from the ensemble’s ranks to solo in C. P. E. Bach’s Cello Concerto in A Major, Wq.172/H. 439. Composed during C. P. E. Bach’s years at the court of Frederick the Great, this concerto dates from 1750 – 1753 and may have been premièred by the Berlin court cellist Ignaz Mara. Though many previously considered it a transcription, scholars now hold that C.P E. wrote it originally for the cello. In three movements, this is a concerto in the vein of Boccherini or Haydn yet marked by the composer’s own style: the virtuosity of Vivaldi married with the reserve and grace of Haydn, and the boldness of Beethoven. One foot is in the Baroque, one foot in the Classical world. Less visibly virtuosic, the concerto remains a challenge, especially to deliver the beauty of the lines. Curiously this is the second time in the past year that Bostonians have had this work available; on September 23rd 2018 Natasha Brofsky performed it with Steven Lipsitt and the Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms Society in Faneuil Hall. C. P. E. Bach is having his moment, abetted no doubt by the preparation of a new critical edition of his works thanks to the generosity of the Packard Humanities Institute.
Fishman, Labadie, and H+H offered a fleet traversal which played to the strengths of historically informed musical praxis with rhythmic precision and fast passagework a rococo cascade of excess. Some quickly resolved balance issues at the opening of the solo line perhaps served as a reminder of the challenge of period performance in more recently built, cavernous concert halls (Symphony Hall versus Faneuil Hall, for example). Once the balance issue resolved, we found ourselves transported back to a freshness, purpose, and excitation of good music played well. The opening Allegro begins an orchestral survey of the main contrasts (dynamic, melodic) and moods (sunshine and sadness) to come. The second movement, Largo con sordini: Mesto, highlights the marked rhythmic contrast between movements, and it is here that this performance shone. In a minor mode, Fishman endowed the theme with a heartrendingly plaintive sound and the orchestra responded with matching tenebrous passages. The enjoyment of harmonic suspensions and the corresponding crunch of dissonance added to the heightened intensity. The concluding movement, Allegro assai, returned us to a more chipper world, and embodied the sunny carefree character of a scherzo in this performance. Borne aloft on this wave of playful brightness, the concerto concluded to great acclaim.
The concert concluded with Mozart’s Symphony 41 in C Major, K. 551, the “Jupiter.” Teresa Neff’s essay reviews the theories for the attribution of this sobriquet. Even though we remain uncertain of the origin and date of the application of the nickname, it is difficult for us to hear the “Jupiter” without such lofty thoughts as that moniker inspires. The outing had all the customary clarity and precision one expects from H+H, plus vigor, lending direction to their reading. The opening of the Allegro vivace begins with attention-grabbing pronouncement—here a full-orchestra flourish as all are one with the timpani. The flowing theme took on a gentler aspect than always heard, a softness granting a dream-like quality to the whole. The Andante cantabile glistened with beautifully seamless transitions between themes which brought a freshness and inevitability to the unfolding. The Menuetto opened with a gorgeously delicate quietness, as though the musicians were heard from a distance. Smartly realized dynamics enhanced the play in all its parts, ending with the delicacy of birdsong. The finale, Molto allegro, is the ascent ad Parnassum with all the grace and flourish the Muses, let alone the Olympians, command. A tight interplay between the lines emphasized the collaborative procession of central voice. With an enviable clarity in the fugetto, and rapid notes as the cascade of a waterfall, with notes tumbling down in a force of aural poetry, the symphony progressed to a tremendous conclusion. The final notes rang out like the sun shining through the clouds, illuminating the mountain ascended: ardua brevisque via, ars longa.
Repeated Sunday at 3:00
Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra