Saturday, February 25, 2012

"Eroica" at Handel and Haydn Society

Detail from David's Napoleon Crossing the Alps.

Beethoven at Handel and Haydn is always exciting these days - indeed, a few of their recent performances of the symphonies have been nothing less than revelations, even transformations, I'd argue. I'll never forget Norrington's Sixth, or Egarr's Eighth, for instance; both seemed like virtual re-inventions of the familiar musical texts.

So the bar was high for Canadian conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni (below left) last weekend, when he essayed both the Third ("Eroica") and the Egmont Overture, which shared the program with Haydn's "Maria Theresa" Symphony (No. 48), as well as a special performance, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of H&H's Collaborative Youth Concerts, of the "Gloria" from Mozart's Coronation Mass by local high school students.

I'm happy to report, however, that Zeitouni more than met H&H's high standards for Ludwig van, even if perhaps his "Eroica" wasn't the kind of transfiguration that Norrington and Egarr conjured in previous seasons.  "Eroica," of course, represents Beethoven's own transfiguration of the symphonic tradition - it's his "breakout" symphony, but not, perhaps, entirely of a piece; it sprawls, and is ungainly in places; what's thrilling about it is not its high finish or subtle structure, but rather the way it heaves the symphony into new arenas of emotional and political salience.

For notice the number of political names cited in this particular program: "Eroica," or "Heroic," was of course famously first titled "Bonaparte" (before Napoleon declared himself emperor, and Beethoven scratched his name out of the dedication), and Egmont is an overture to Goethe's paean to a valiant, doomed Flemish nobleman who fought the good fight against  oppression (the play, like almost all of Goethe, hasn't lasted, but Beethoven's incidental music has).  Meanwhile "Maria Theresa" was, of course, one of the great doyennes of the Hapsburgs - the only female ruler of their empire (for some forty years), as well as the mother of Marie Antoinette (among 15 other children).

Zeitouni didn't truly limn (or critique) these contrasting political dimensions, however; he concentrated on purely musical expression.  Perhaps that's because I'm not sure this conductor has, or cares to project, a particular intellectual profile; he has instead a style - generally hearty and muscular, with expressive phrasing and a taut musical line, but also marked by beautiful clarity, even transparency, and a striking range of dynamic ("Eroica" ran the gamut from whisper to battle cry).

Jean-Marie Zeitouni
None of this was quite enough, however, to save him from the dangers that lurk within "Maria Theresa," which of course has its charms, and is in spots quite brilliant; but more often, I'm afraid, it's meandering and repetitious.  I'm not sure why this particular Haydn opus retains its popularity, in fact; perhaps because its incipient sense of senescence seems so very Old World?  Possibly.  At any rate, the strings and woodwinds sounded exquisite, but the Adagio in particular seemed to grind down over time.  Things picked up in the final movement, but perhaps not quite enough.

Egmont, however, seemed to blow away all those sonic and political cobwebs, and surged with excitement and democratic life just as it should.  The strings were once again in fine form, and the woodwinds were more elegant than ever; Zeitouni kept the overture's "story" in focus, and the finale was suitably thrilling.

"Eroica" perhaps didn't feel quite as focused, but was nonetheless deeply satisfying.  It opened well, and the second movement (the "Funeral March") was deeply felt - but the Scherzo, always a bit surprising given what has come before, seemed a bit brisk, and lacked clarity.  The finale, however, like that of Egmont, was an inspiration, with vigorous, if not entirely clean, fanfares from the horns; the sense of surging triumph was more than enough to bring the audience to its feet.  If Zeitouni hadn't in the end re-defined "Eroica," he had nonetheless brought it off with power and grace.

I will also add that the student choruses who essayed the "Gloria" from Mozart's Coronation Mass were in fine form as well, and sang with persuasive feeling (under the direction of the reliable John Finney).  Indeed, their sound seemed to swallow the professional soloists accompanying them; only Teresa Wakim's radiant soprano managed to hold its own against their youthful exuberance.  The Society will perform the entire Mass at the end of April; I'm looking forward to it.

No comments:

Post a Comment