Sunday, November 9, 2008

Eighth wonder

The early music movement is by now a scene of such ferment that it should be no surprise, I suppose, that the Handel and Haydn Society should be able to debut an exciting and challenging musician at seemingly each and every concert - yet still, each one still registers as a faint, if pleasant, shock. Indeed, Richard Egarr (left), Music Director of the Academy of Ancient Music, who led last weekend's "Mozart and Beethoven" evening at Symphony Hall, perhaps even registered as something of a revelation. For here was a musician who not only conducted (and played) a freshly conceived and deeply moving Mozart concerto on fortepiano, but then turned right around and made Beethoven's Eight Symphony sound alarmingly new - and I mean alarmingly new. It will be hard for me to listen to that particular warhorse in quite the same way ever again.

But first, back to Mozart. The evening's program, in truth, hardly cohered, but was instead yet another Mozart-and-Beethoven grab-bag, the kind of mish-mash a friend of mine calls "Mostly Mozthoven." It opened with a curiosity - Mozart's Symphony No. 1, written when the boy wonder was all of eight, which Egarr demonstrated was more than just a charming bagatelle, but clearly revealed the composer's lyric gifts in its simple but pleasing themes (one of which included a charming run and up down the scale) - as well as his confident grasp, even at that early age, of symphonic form. The next offering on the program, however, the A- Major Piano Concerto, seemed a world away from the serene innocence of that first symphony; its second movement, in fact, is one of the most poignant passages in all music, one of those haunting, nakedly emotional moments that can never be "resolved" back into sonata form. Egarr conducted as well as played a fortepiano which sounded a little tinkly to me (and was pretty much swallowed by the orchestra in the symphony), and so I fretted that ghosts of Schroeder and "Für Elise" might haunt the performance. But I shouldn't have worried: during his solo, Egarr seemed to be drawing tragedy directly from a clear, deep well, and I found myself nearly fighting tears.

Strangely, however, the maestro then leapt into the piece's merry third movement with almost inordinate alacrity, and I began to sense something a bit mercurial about Mr. Egarr - or at least, something that reveled in contrast, even for its own sake. The Beethoven half of the program only underlined this impression. The opening piece - the Overture to The Creations of Prometheus - had a dichotomy all but built into its structure; it opens with huge, primal, chords that announce the Beginning of Everything, followed by more humble motifs that one takes as the signature of the frail, fire-less human race. Free of the fortepiano, Egarr brought more clarity to the orchestra's playing, and the performance proved satisfying both in scope and detail.

The Eighth Symphony, however, was more shocking - for here Egarr insisted on an even greater range of dynamic contrast in a work that is generally played as a glossily polished interregnum between the haunting Seventh and the triumphant Ninth. He had his justifications, surely - Beethoven's markings on the score clearly call for "fff" blasts (that's fortississimo); still, perhaps one shouldn't rely on the volume notations of a guy who's basically deaf. The end result of Egarr's approach was an Eighth that glittered brilliantly and yet sounded slightly manic - or even schizophrenic; one sometimes felt one was at one of those horror-movie soirées in which the charming, all-knowing host has poisoned all the aperitifs. Still, I can't deny that Egarr may be on to something about the Eighth - perhaps there is a scream echoing behind its tightly-clenched smile; one could certainly understand if there were. And certainly the orchestra's virtuosic playing once again threw down the kind of intellectual guantlet one has come to expect from Handel and Haydn, and the early music movement in general.

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