Boston Baroque began its 50th season with an all-Beethoven tour-de-force featuring two of his most treacherous works (the Overture to Coriolan and the 9th Symphony) alongside a seldom-heard choral composition, Elegischer Gesang (Elegiac Song). The two-thirds full Sanders Theater bristled with excitement as the orchestra members gathered on stage, warmed-up some thrilling licks from the program, and the house lights finally came down.
At several points in the concert, the ensemble pointed out (perhaps inadvertently) some advantages of period instruments over their successors. Throughout the music, the dark tone of the gut strings imbued Beethoven’s lines with depth of pathos. The most striking (and subtle) example came in the descending line in the cellos and second bassoon at the end of the closing theme in the second movement. Their wilting sighs, though soft and buried beneath swirling violins and double bass pizzicati, never failed to grab my attention. The chromatic 2-3 suspensions gradually decayed the warmth of the G major chord at the beginning of the sequence into an ominous, diminished whisper, and their husky tone brought clarity to the line without volume. The soft ribbon of notes at the end of the Overture to Coriolan haunted the music in a like manner. The grit from the gut strings also intensified louder textures. The violins masterfully used this articulation to shape their melodies and countermelodies again without the need for playing louder.
Similarly, the period wind instruments (despite their narrower dynamic range) are far more colorful and pungent than their contemporary incarnations. Particularly in the Coriolan Overture, the brass players used their instrument’s bite to intensify the music at its most dramatic moments. The effect came across as intensely as dogs barking without the ear ringing that would accompany a modern brass ensemble. In the second movement of the symphony, the horns produced the most uncanny bell-tones I have ever heard. I genuinely thought they must be doubled by a harp or set of tubular chimes to produce such characteristic tones. The effect gave Beethoven’s music a light and transparent texture, something I’ve never associated with the composer known for smashing piano keyboards. Joseph Monticello’s (flute) and David Dickey’s (oboe) solos rang in the hall with a characteristically wooden sparkle that only comes from period instruments.
Jonathan Hess’s timpani playing deserves its own paragraph. Like a good continuo player, he used his cans to guide the ensemble with an invisible hand that throttled the intensity from white hot to cool. As satisfying as it was to hear the theater shake when he beat the timpani as loudly as they could handle, it was the subliminal, soft beats of the Adagio that elevated the texture to the sublime.
The singers did not live up to the expectations the orchestra set for them. The Elegischer Gesang came across as a pleasing offering of an underperformed work, but it proved an ominous portent for the rest of the concert. Unlike the strings, who never let a note pass without shaping it, the chorus seemed to muddle through without forming lines. The tempo picked-up slightly in the second half of the piece which naturally gave the singers more direction, but many of the cadences still felt stagnant.
The choral sections of the Ninth Symphony continued this thread. Dynamically, the chorus had no difficulty projecting over the sensitive orchestral textures; however, the symphony’s superb shaping did not seem to inspire the chorus. Where the strings sang through melodies with the grace of a songbird, the choir shouted to be heard. When the woodwinds and brass organically produced swells and decays on sustained chords that reinforced what the strings were doing, the choir held chords amorphously with the beginning and end of lines occurring at happenstance. The quartet sang with a similar aesthetic. Bass Soloman Howard’s arresting recit in the fourth movement instantly grabbed our attention. Many in the audience reflexively slide up in their chairs to hear what he had to say, but most had to check the text in the program book to understand the words. Tenor William Burden’s solo felt rushed and passed quickly. With the addition of soprano Heidi Stober and mezzo Daniela Mack, the four soloists belted out Schiller’s ode like it was Puccini. A chronic use of vibrato rendered most of the counterpoint unintelligible, and few consonants made it to the audience.
The performance had many moments of drama, both musical and visual. The antiphonal seating of the 1st and 2nd violins gave particular pleasure as they traded melodies back and forth. In the fourth movement, the cello and bass sections very exciting recitative matched Pearlman’s very animated conducting. His sensible tempos produced a well-balanced reading. The molto molto vivace second movement, perhaps a touch on the slow side, nevertheless benefited from the crisp articulation in the strings; they delivered with enough drama and energy to convince us that they were playing much faster. The moderate tempo allowed some of the violinists to groove with the leaping octave figures, bobbing their heads to the beat. Most of the rest smiled or smirked at some points. The timing of the grand luftpausen also thrilled us. Instead of bringing the proceedings to a complete stop, Pearlman and his orchestra used these moments as resets. The Adagio molto e cantabile, which is usually delivered as slowly as possible, here possessed a refreshingly gentle tempo that highlighted lyricism. The tempo made the difference between hearing this movement as a heavenly dirge or as a free-spirited set of variations on theme. (I prefer the latter.) One violinist with whom I spoke after the concert referred to this as a ‘progressive inebriation of the violins.’ In an article archived on Boston Baroque’s website discussing Beethoven’s metronome markings, Pearlman emphasized Beethoven’s quip that metronomes are “silly stuff; one must feel the tempo.” The audience certainly was swept away by the driving tempi. I heard several gasps throughout the evening, the loudest probably being after the rocketing set of scales at the end of the first movement of the Ninth, but that was easily dwarfed by the applause at the end.