Saturday, March 23, 2013

Egarr's, and Beethoven's, Seventh

Richard Egarr
There are very few sure things in this life, but Richard Egarr standing at the podium is surely one of them.  His versions of Beethoven's Eighth, and Haydn's "The Clock," in Handel and Haydn's previous seasons, linger in my memory as among of the most original interpretations of a classic I've ever heard.  So my expectations ran high last weekend, when Egarr took the stage, again at Handel and Haydn, to take on two masterpieces, Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A Major and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

And I'll admit I was not disappointed.  It was pretty fantastic. The Clarinet Concerto was merely superb; the Seventh was thrilling - although not, perhaps, quite the full-bore re-invention that Egarr achieved with the Eighth.  This was more a probing investigation that turned the work into a personal statement of painful liberation; in effect, over its course you could feel Egarr painting a harrowing portrait of the tormented composer himself.

Of course he had the huge advantage of working with period instruments; after recently sitting through thoughtfully lumbering versions of the Second, Third, and Fifth from Daniel Barenboim and Vladimir Jurowski, it felt like heaven to hear Beethoven done by a nimble ensemble, in an atmosphere more like a salon than a stadium.  With period instruments (particularly under Egarr's direction), the orchestra becomes less an amplifier of power chords, and more of a ruminative intellectual group - indeed, the subtleties and eccentricities of early instruments highlight the almost conversational quality of classical and early romantic music.  The tapestry of statements, repeats, hesitations, echoes, and subtle shifts becomes an intimate debate, an internal dialogue; hearing Beethoven on period instruments, you can forget about World War II and (other, even more titanic) clashes, and simply listen to the music of a great mind at work.

In the Seventh, for instance, Egarr seized on the percussive sighs that punctuate the opening movement and transformed them into an organizing leitmotif for the entire work.  Thus the symphony proper only began when a single, stuttering flute - after almost failing completely (you could feel the remaining movements hanging in the balance) - found the first hopeful notes of the Vivace.  And the famous opening phrase of the second movement, beset by the same stuttering rhythm, was likewise transformed into a tragically self-aware march.  The dialogue between freedom and the weight of weary pain continued unabated; the shackles were first thrown off in the third movement - but then recalled poignantly, and transcended in triumph; and then finally forgotten entirely in the concluding Allegro con brio, which Wagner dubbed "the apotheosis of the dance," and which Egarr drove to the level of frenzy (the orchestra seemed to respond almost preternaturally to every gesture); the response from the crowd was almost as crazed.  But I was meanwhile wondering whether I had discerned in that finale something of the nihilistic mania that Egarr had brought to the Eighth; it occurred to me that this conductor might have an entire symphonic biography of Beethoven up his sleeve.

But I shouldn't forget about the Mozart Clarinet Concerto - the last work Mozart completed, and one which is blessed with one of his most tenderly devastating melodies (thus making it easy to imagine it a kind of unconscious requiem in its own right).  It's also intriguing, however, in that it showcases an instrument, the basset clarinet, which is all but lost to the modern orchestra (the concerto was actually written for a basset clarinet virtuoso, Anton Stadler, a friend and fellow Mason of Mozart's).  

Hoeprich and horn.
That's right: you can only  hear Mozart's last completed work as he intended it on period instruments; for the bulbous, vaguely Seussian basset clarinet has not only a richer, more plaintive tone than its modern counterpart, but also a few extra notes at the bottom of its range (which Mozart makes full use of; modern versions require a re-write to get around this obstacle).  The piece's exuberantly rippling passagework is also a challenge for any soloist; luckily, however, Handel and Haydn could turn to one of its own, Eric Hoeprich (at right), who's a specialist in the basset clarinet, and who darted dazzlingly through Mozart's most demanding sequences.  And I have to admit, his reading of the famous dying fall of the Adagio actually brought tears to my eyes, it was so gorgeous.  My only complaint was that, at least in Symphony Hall, the strings sometimes covered the basset's unique low end when Hoeprich wasn't playing at full force; so perhaps there's still half an argument for the modern clarinet here after all.

The program was filled out with a worthy, but more variable, rendition of Mozart's poignant Masonic Funeral Music (K. 477), which began with a touchingly mournful decorum, but seemed to wobble in tone despite its brief length.  Preceding all was a charming appearance by choruses from Boston Latin, Brockton High, and Lawrence High, who essayed excerpts from Handel's Utrecht Te Deum with clarity and commitment.  Handel and Haydn is making a brilliant move in including these young singers from their outreach programs in their concerts (it not only instills in them a respect for classical music, but no doubt seeds the organization's future audience).  My only comment is that the repeated success of these appearances argues for more stage time (the audience was clearly happy to listen to more from these kids) as well as more support in the program notes.  These performances are no longer experiments, I'd say; they're part of the Handel and Haydn experience - and a very enjoyable part, to boot.  Let's treat them that way. 

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