Saturday, February 21, 2015

Breath-taking Beethoven, and immature Mozart, from Egarr and H&H

Beethoven at about the time of the First Symphony.

Last weekend the Handel and Haydn Society performed a fascinating concert that may, in the end, have disproved its own thesis - but was often breath-taking nonetheless. But by now we're used to that kind of thing in programs conducted by Richard Egarr, one of the most exciting talents on the period scene, and probably among the most compelling conductors on the planet. Certainly Egarr has a way with the Handel and Haydn players that no one else seems quite able to match; under his inspired touch, the orchestra reliably pulls together into a gleaming period-music machine. This time their take on Beethoven's First Symphony was not only passionately polished but also superbly nuanced; indeed, Egarr seemed to work innumerable succinct insights into the great Ludwig van's first foray into grand symphonic form. And despite a late wobble in the trombones, the orchestra sounded almost as good in Mozart's nearly-first Mass (the "Waisenhaus," K.139) - written when the composer was all of twelve.

But then that in a nutshell was the "concept" of Egarr's concert - a compare-and-contrast between two "First Endeavors" (as the program text put it).  Only the playing field here was hardly level; in 1800, the year of the First Symphony's premiere, its 30-year-old composer was well on his way to "becoming" Beethoven; but at 12 years of age, the pre-pubescent Amadeus was very far from "becoming" Mozart. Much of the "Waisenhaus" is preternaturally brilliant - but in total, the Mass is something of a mess: striking but disjointed, sometimes oddly voiced, and generally unfocused and meandering. Yes, Mozart was a genius even at 12 - but he was also only 12!

Richard Egarr
Beethoven, in contrast, is quite the picture of discipline - at least on the surface - in the First, which is sometimes mistakenly viewed as a classical warm-up to the great breakthrough of the Third. But even the First is pregnant with Beethoven's ultimate symphonic vision - and it was Egarr's clear intent to highlight the subversive content hidden within its conventional form.

Its first movement, for instance, begins with a typical Haydnian joke - it opens not in the announced C Major, but apparently in the closing cadences of some other key - and the symphony slowly finds its way to its own harmonic center. In Haydn's hands, of course, this would have been a musical bon mot, a theatrical coup; but Egarr seemed to know just how to suggest the underlying mood of abstraction that Beethoven intended, that hint of questioning symphonic basics rather than just wittily riffing on them.  Somehow an experimental subtext likewise blossomed in the scherzo that scampers out of the minuet, and the hesitantly climbing scale that tumbles into the opening theme of the final movement.

And the orchestra seemed to rally to Egarr's vision. The string section had never sounded more cohesive, I thought - it seemed to sing as a single choir - and Stephen Hammer's oboe has never been more fluidly expressive; perhaps most importantly, Beethoven's distinctive balance between the flutes, winds and brass was here close to perfection. Even timpanist Gary DiPerna came into his own with a  precisely rolling thunder. It was the kind of performance that drew applause between movements - even from people who should know better; and the symphony closed to a stunned, anticipatory silence, followed by cheers.  It had been literally breath-taking.

This Greuze portrait is believed to be of Mozart.
In contrast, the Mozart often intrigued, but didn't quite compel (although I admit I felt a little silly for being seduced into imagining that it could!). As mentioned, the "Waisenhaus," named for the church it consecrated, is all over the place (like Beethoven's First, it's not even always in its announced key - it's more often in C major than C minor).  But there are certainly inspired moments throughout: the Kyrie opens gorgeously, for instance, and there's a beautiful, solemn swell in the Credo that's remarkable.  But there's also an exuberant, almost incoherent variety elsewhere - arias and fugues pop in and out of loudly declamatory choral statements; the 12-year-old shows you just above everything he can do (which is a lot).  And to be honest, I wasn't entirely taken with Egarr's handling of the chorus - it was skillful, but a little too monotonously insistent; Harry Christophers reliably finds a subtler dynamic in his choir. The soloists fared better, particularly soprano Sonja DuToit Tenglad and alto Emily Marvosh, who were ravishing both in their solos and duets.

Still, there are touches in the "Waisenhaus" that betray the signature of Mozart's mature genius (such as his imaginative use of the trombone). All in all, I was glad to become acquainted with the piece.  I was also pleased to hear the Society's youth choruses again, in a credible version of the Kyrie and Gloria from Haydn's Missa brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo (which is wonderful, btw - I wish we'd heard all of it!).  My only real disappointment with the concert was that not too many period music fans braved the winter winds to hear it. So let's hope when Egarr returns (and I'm sure he will), he'll be met with better weather!