Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Richard Egarr and you-know-who.

Right now the Handel and Haydn Society is on something of a roll. Just a few weeks ago came the stunning Israel in Egypt, in which the chorus took command; but last weekend, it was the period orchestra's turn to amaze. Under the inspired direction of the brilliant Richard Egarr (above), they tore through a slate of masterpieces: the overture to Don Giovanni, Haydn's Symphony No. 101 ("The Clock") and Keyboard Concerto No. 11, and what may count as the most familiar piece of music in the Western canon: Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

First, the Fifth (even though it came last in the program).  You may think there's nothing new to be said about it - and actually, I couldn't claim Egarr delivered a profoundly new interpretation; as always, fate threw down its gauntlet at the opening, and it was taken up in triumph at the symphony's end (through its several ends, in fact). Still, the performance bore an intense personal stamp, and that makes all the difference, doesn't it. Egarr is known for both thoughtfulness and passion - he's fond of lightning shifts in dynamics, as well as calm, pondering reveries; and both were evident in his Beethoven. It was clear he'd thought a lot about the Fifth, and was eager to show us everything he'd learned. Thus though superbly sculpted, his interpretation still felt questioning, almost probing; everything felt deeply considered, and yet everything felt spontaneous.

And as Egarr seems to relate to his musicians as a musician himself (he's a superb keyboardist), he engenders a startling degree of camaraderie with them. (He also, perhaps not incidentally, has a curiously self-deprecating stage charisma.) Perhaps partly as a result of these factors, I don't think I've ever heard the orchestra sound as committed and unified as it did last weekend. New concertmaster Aisslin Nosky seemed to throw everything she had into every entrance, but this was only one facet of the players' palpable collective drive. I personally don't think the Fifth is Beethoven's greatest; it's harmonically simplistic (to be honest) and its great, animating idea - its incredible extrapolation of that fateful opening statement - I'm afraid has grown old for me. Still, when the Fifth builds as it did here, it's impossible not to be taken with it all over again.

Just as it was impossible not to be seduced by the rest of the program (indeed, I preferred the earlier pieces to the finale). Although I’m afraid that Egarr seemed to investigate the Overture to Don Giovanni without coming to any conclusions about it; his somewhat-light reading of it was never dull, certainly - there were eerie or mysterious touches here and there that you don’t often hear. Still, at times his fondness for abrupt swings in dynamic felt more like mannerism than manner.

But then came “The Clock,” perhaps Haydn’s most popular symphony (i.e., his answer to the Fifth), which features a famous second movement of almost hilarious domesticity, marked by a metronomic beat that gives the symphony its sobriquet. Here, unbelievably, Egarr insinuated beneath the tick-tock of that andante a kind of essay on the inexorable nature of time itself; as the movement rose to a climax, it was hard not to feel that a menacing gulf had opened up beneath the superficial gentility of Haydn's themes. But Egarr’s interpretation of the Concerto in D Major was even more startling. It’s the conductor’s belief that the concerto is a response to the meteoric rise of Mozart, and there’s certainly a Mozartean feel to its lyrical flights. But in the second movement, Un poco Adagio, Egarr seemed to push past Mozart to the Romantics (and even beyond). Considering that he was also playing the fortepiano part, the performance was all the more extraordinary – and daring.  For while in the Fifth, Egarr seemed determined to prove that period instruments could be as resoundingly affirmative as modern ones, here he seemed to be meeting head-on a related criticism: that they’re too soft for venues the size of Symphony Hall (I’ve muttered that sometimes myself). In his fortepiano playing, however, Egarr held the audience in the palm of his hand even as his playing slipped toward the gossamer – and then into a whisper, as the faintest mists of accompaniment rose from the strings. For most of the movement, it seemed that everyone in Symphony Hall was holding his or her breath. Rarely has a hush been quite so transporting.

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