Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Fond Farewell

Jane Glover conducts.

Parting, as Juliet said, is such sweet sorrow, but rarely sweeter than it was last weekend, at Handel and Haydn's "Returns and Farewells"at Symphony Hall, during which conductor Jane Glover conjured exquisite atmospheres of immense poignance from two great classics, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 and Haydn's almost-too-famous "Farewell" Symphony. Both are familiar works, surely, but Glover managed that trick that is so often claimed but so rarely brought off: she made them strange, and haunting, and new.

First, however, Glover opened with an obscurity, the only one on her program - Mozart's incidental music from Thamos, King of Egypt, a play now lost (and probably mercifully so). Indeed, the drama fell from popularity almost precisely upon its debut, which meant, as Mozart lamented, his fine choruses and fanfares would rarely if ever be heard again. Well, H&H has resurrected at least four of the five orchestral interludes from the play, which glowed with a warm sense of melodramatic flourish; we could guess from these at least at what the writers of Thamos were aiming at. But the four movements hardly constitute a newly-found "symphony," as Glover suggested in her program notes; there simply wasn't enough internal coherence even within each individual movement, much less the whole, to warrant such a claim. Still, Glover conducted with flair, and worked a small miracle with the second movement, a melancholic andante, which hinted at the larger emotional landscapes to follow.

Next came the wonderful Piano Concerto No. 21, with the virtuosic Robert Levin (left) at the keyboard. Here again, in keeping with her general theme of farewell, Glover was at her finest in the slow second moment, which seemed, in that way that only Mozart can, to be both luminously light and somehow heartbreakingly profound. Glover conducts without a baton, but with a full-body kind of motion; at times she seemed, like some silent magician, to be almost calling up audible spirits from the orchestra.

Although actually, not all those spirits were quite audible. It was difficult to understand, for instance, the decision to place Levin's fortepiano - an instrument which often struggles to be heard in a space the size of Symphony Hall - in the center of the orchestra. Predictably, the piano's delicate timbre was touchingly evocative when flying solo, but once the rest of the players chimed in, its plaintive sound was often swallowed whole. In a talkback after the performance, Levin ascribed the placement to historical precedent, but here is where I must part company with many early-music purists. When historicism leads to inaudibility, both common sense and the common ear are offended. I'm not as interested in hearing Mozart the way Franz Joseph heard it as I am in hearing it, period, and I hope the next time I see a fortepiano at Handel and Haydn, it will be front and center.

The gaps in audibility were all the more frustrating in that Professor Levin's musicianship is utterly superb; he confidently embroiders the gaps in Mozart's keyboard writing with a sparkling skein of inventive, yet always appropriate, ornament. Still, however much I admire his playing, it seems that he admires it even more, with expressions of delighted satisfaction that, though inarguably deserved, were nevertheless distracting, and almost amusing whenever his facility couldn't quite be heard. Sometimes, professor, less is more (and sometimes, when it comes to volume, it's just less). And I must add that Levin wasn't actually quite in step with the memorable mood Glover was conjuring in that exceptional second movement. His brilliance was at its best in the final allegro, to which he brought a truly glittering finish.

The theme of the conductor's program reached fullest flower, however, in the final "Farewell" Symphony (No. 45) from Haydn, which is built upon a famously insinuating musical jest. Facing players who were deeply unhappy at their working conditions - their employer, Prince Esterházy, had just announced they could not bring their families to live with them at the country palace, and some of their jobs and salaries might be cut - Haydn devised a way to embed the musicians' discontent into the very music they were playing: as its final movement progresses, its orchestration dwindles, and the players creep out, one by one, until only two lonely violins are left. The Prince got the message, and soon the musicians were back at court, with their families.

Glover seemed less interested in the gentle humor of this famous joke, however, than in a yearning, more general sense of farewell; her second movement, an adagio, was almost mournful, and the final departures seemed steeped in a delicate poignance as the lights slowly dimmed (in Haydn's day, the musicians would have taken their candles with them). Glover leavened her own final exit with an amusing little shrug, but the atmosphere of loss returned for the piece's final, lonely duet between Daniel Stepner and Linda Quan. I'd never heard Haydn's masterpiece played with such a deep sense of seriousness - which made me very fond of this "Farewell" indeed.

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