IN: Reviews

The Discreet Charm of Bold Intelligence

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Laurence Equilbey (Sam Brewer photo)

Guest conducting the Handel & Haydn Society at Symphony Hall yesterday, Laurence Equilbey, founder and music director of the Insula Orchestra in Paris, led probing and enlightening accounts of symphonies by Beethoven and Louise Farrenc. Reprises Sunday afternoon.

Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3 in G Minor (1847) was her last completed orchestral work. Terrific, forceful, dynamic and inventive from start to finish, it certainly belongs in the canon. In France in Farrenc’s day composers had to pick-up orchestras or hope for selection by the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire. In 1849 the Conservatoire gave the third that honor.

The symphony is in four movements: adagio-allegro, adagio cantabile, scherzo: vivace and allegro. The brooding  opening in woodwinds, joined by scurrying strings, took flight in a glorious eruption of the first theme, intense, forceful, but also joyous. Mozartean elements of color, innocence, elegance and serenity were put in dialogue with Beethovenian elements of edginess, vitality, decisiveness and recklessness without privileging either, conveying the sense that both registers are equally timeless and equally valuable. Equilbey brought a similar mysterious juxtaposition in the second movement adagio cantabile, though aimed at a slightly different effect: the shear freshness and pastoral feel of the beginning conveyed a wistful, lyrical tenderness from which slowly but irrepressibly emerged a growing intensity, a gathering emotion in the woodwinds and tympani, exploding into anguished rebellion and intense pain in the Trio. The return of the lyrical serenity with great emotional delicacy also revealed a hidden force and firmness gained from the struggle with the inner kernel of volcanic angst. Equilbey’s insight, I believe, is that the rigor of form does not repress the depth of musical emotion, but on the contrary allows us to savor its multiple facets.

Equilbey interpreted the very Mendelssohnian scherzo vivace as a serio-ludere: she conveyed Mendelssohn’s fascination with the teeming life and creativity that come into play at the margins of the human gaze, sprites and ghosts and goblins that keep the universe afloat while we aren’t looking. Exploiting Farrenc’s subtle changes of rhythm kept us constantly off-balance, suggesting a life beyond our control that could easily build momentum against us and destroy us, despite all its playful innocence. She concluded the scherzo with dramatic effect by “cutting the nonsense short”, giving a powerful and paradoxical meaning to Farrenc’s cadence, that in our lives we cannot actually cut short that nonsense.

Building on the futile attempt to suppress those thoughts, the finale-allegro emerged as a feast of danger. We found ourselves fleeing from fate but fleeing into a darkening storm and whirlwind. The woodwinds, and especially Eric Hoeprich’s clarinet, restored moments of serenity like brief spots of hope that made the return of danger more dramatic, suggesting that fate might engulf and destroy all. Equilbey’s naturally dashing temperament, however, imbued Farrenc’s struggle with danger with an exquisite nobility. The careful attention that she gave to every note and nuance of Farrenc’s intricately composed score brought out the possibility that Farrenc self-consciously sought to add a distinctive French love of self-discipline as a new kind of intensity for German symphonies.

Equilbey brought the same alert and penetrating intelligence to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Exploiting the complex colors of the H+H instruments, she brilliantly gave the opening musette a nervous, edgy feel at the risk of sounding out of tune before soaring into a swift, spirited lyricism. She gave special attention to the way that Beethoven’s “awakening of cheerful feelings” involved a difficult moment of transition when we let go of dull routine before we can experience feelings of gladness, rejuvenation, vitality, joy, rapture, well-being, awe and gratitude.

The second movement adagio arrived with a liquid, swaying, barcarolle-like opening, sounds and sights of nature appreciated and inducing contemplative moments. Equilbey brought out, through the flowing muted strings, pizzicato basses, and the sensitive dialog between flutist Emi Ferguson and Andrew Schwartz, bassoon, a distinctively acoustic experience of the flow of time. We heard the haunting juxtaposition of standing still while moving through time, the essence of “be here now”. The final birdcalls, which make Nature into Beethoven’s fellow composer, turned the meditation on time into a serene inhabiting of the perennial.

Equilbey’s surprising and deeply memorable interpretation of the third movement made for her most insightful contribution of the evening. Rather than convey the “merry gathering of country folk” as a golden age glimpse of innocence and simplicity, she urged the brass into a dramatic and raucous cacophony; we felt the intrusion of the human species into Nature as a problematic acoustic event, full of petty contradictions and quarrelsomeness. The Ländler, brutal with its heavy-handed unity, sounded as troops marching in lock step could cause a bridge to collapse. Humans buzzing in every direction and occasionally banding together for further mischief, Equilbey implied, are in Nature but not of it. Consequently, the storm, brooding secretly before exploding violently, came as a cathartic revelation of the majesty and power of Nature ― not to mention its indifference to our plight. The result: the most explosive and genuinely terrifying storm you will ever hear. Timpanist Jonathan Hess and Wendy Rolfe, piccolo deserve our kudos.

In the finale, when calm returns, Equilbey exploited the sonata-rondo form to harmonize the perennial dimension of the second movement with the momentous threat of the storm. The shepherd’s song, with its “thankful feelings”, calls for a new kind of cooperation, rather than the unstable truce that the Ländler embodied. Humanity is now called to unite in order to face Nature’s challenge and develop perennial modes of life to live in harmony with Nature.

In response to the enthusiastic audience reception, the players complied with a brief excerpt from the Overture to Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens, which prominently features Athena, Goddess of Intelligence, coming to the rescue of distressed humankind.

The program repeats Sunday, November 7, at 3:00 pm.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.

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