Monday, November 1, 2010

Hammering it home

The belly of the beast: inside a fortepiano.
What does a player do when his piano breaks?  Onstage, during performance?

Well, if he's the unflappable Robert Levin, the pianist simply opens up the instrument, pulls out the action, and begins fiddling around with its hammers until everything is under control.

And that's what happened during the Handel and Haydn Society concert in Symphony Hall last Friday night, halfway through Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. Conductor Bernard Labadie, the whole orchestra, and about 1500 audience members watched in anxiety as the intrepid Mr. Levin tinkered and poked, before finally giving a thumbs-up, and squeezed the whole contraption back together again by pushing the chassis against his gut.

In a way, that hands-on, how-is-this-thing-put-together aspect of early music is part of what I love about it.  And whatever Levin did, it worked - at least for a while (we learned later that even after his ministrations, the F# hammer remained skittish).  The second movement was exquisitely haunting - and it was clear why Levin had insisted on this particular (and particularly fragile) instrument: it's one of the few fortepianos in the world that can get as piano as Beethoven wanted, as its "soft" pedal mutes things down from three strings to one.  And indeed, in the concerto's melancholy Andante, the strings seemed to be echoing from some great distance - perhaps from some other, silvery dimension - giving a whole new meaning to Beethoven's celebrated sense of "musical space."  Elsewhere, Levin scampered and danced just where he should - and the self-dramatizing swoons of earlier appearances with H&H were held in check; this performance was a thoroughly charming one, and boasted a keen sense of dialogue with the orchestra, too.  But when it came time for the cadenzas, perhaps due to that troubling F#, the air seemed to slip from Levin's sails a bit, and things sounded impacted and tentative.  Which was understandable, but really too bad.

Ah, well - fortunately for us, the orchestra was in fine form throughout, as it was being conducted by Canadian Bernard Labadie (above left).  Remember that name - and trust me, if you get a chance to hear him, particularly conducting the baroque repertoire, by all means take it.  Mr. Labadie has an intelligently commanding style that drew a handsome magnificence from the two Haydn symphonies on offer - the "Hen" (No. 83) and the "Surprise" (No. 94), which of course is by now so familiar that its name counts as a misnomer.  Here was Haydn not as the witty raconteur we know so well, but as Beethoven's true forbear, with the great Ludwig van's sense of grandeur latent in the old master's more-intimate, smaller scale.

I always enjoy a program that has a thesis, and I felt that Labadie more than proved his - that Haydn's sense of musical development did prefigure, and perhaps even model, Beethoven's huge architectures (although actually, maybe the Fourth Piano Concerto isn't the best demonstration of their correspondence).  At any rate, beyond its "argument," Labadie's performance was marvelous in purely sensual terms - the strings were as finely etched as we've come to expect from H&H in recent concerts, but this time the winds were exquisite, too. To give you a taste of Labadie's magic, below is the first movement of Beethoven's third piano concerto, with Labadie conducting his home team, Les Violons du Roy. The pianist is the great Marc-Andr√© Hamelin. Enjoy.

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