Monday, February 3, 2014

Richard Egarr at Handel & Haydn

I'm late with an appreciation of the Handel and Haydn Society's last concert, which is strange because I appreciated it quite a bit. But then I'm always intrigued by a concert when Richard Egarr (above) is at the podium; he is the chatty, slyly cherubic Loki of the period scene, forever upending what you thought you knew about this or that composer or piece.

But perhaps I've been slow to think through my response to the concert because this time, the centerpiece of the evening was Beethoven's Fourth; and I've never really decided what I think about the Fourth. So there was nothing this time to upend.

Now I'm not one of those who dismisses this oft-overlooked symphony. You don't have to "make a case" for it with me. Indeed, in its way it fascinates. And it fascinates because it's experimental - and what it experiments with is, well - Haydn, who was also on the program!

Alas, you could argue the experiment comes to no clear conclusion - but the very idea that it is a failed Haydnian experiment (I think I just coined that word) seemed to, in the end, be the point of the concert - even if Egarr backed into that point by chance.

Alison Balsom
You see, the evening was meant to showcase not only Egarr, but rising period trumpet star Alison Balsom.  That's Alison, at left, looking - well, pretty good for a musician of any period. The lady is also by all accounts terrific on the trumpet, and I would have loved to have heard her. (You can assess her chops on the horn yourself, btw, in the piece she planned to bring to H&H, in this Youtube from Proms - she is indeed fabulous, although she appears to be playing a modern instrument.)

Unfortunately, however, Ms. Balsom was taken ill in the days before the performance, and had to bow out, causing the hearts of many a male concertgoer to sink, I think. But even as I wished Ms. Balsom a speedy recovery, I sensed that the program might have suddenly become more interesting (in another way) without her.

Because with one new addition, suddenly it made an intriguing statement. Egarr replaced Balsom's showcase, the Haydn Trumpet Concert in E Flat (itself a wonderful piece of music), with the "Coriolan" Overture - which, appealingly enough, premiered on the same evening in 1807 that the Fourth did. Only they're worlds apart - or rather on either side of an epic musical divide. The all-too-brief "Coriolan" seems to recall the heroic breakthroughs of the Third - it looks forward, while the Fourth looks back, to Haydn, Beethoven's great predecessor (and, briefly, teacher).

So the two operate in concert like the double face of Janus - and with almost impish wit, Egarr sandwiched between them Haydn's last symphony, the "London" (No. 104). First up was the "Coriolan," which was composed not for Shakespeare's tragedy, btw, but rather a knock-off by the forgotten Heinrich Joseph von Collin, whose one intriguing idea was to make Coriolanus a suicide (in the end he can't bear to burn Rome). This, of course, gives the story a romantic cast that Shakespeare's almost Brechtian take lacks, and Beethoven runs with it, conjuring a brief but dramatic portrait of a Napoleonic Hamlet who in the end decides not to be. Egarr is of course known for his sense of drama, and he pounced on the piece with assured passion (he must have had it in his back pocket, methinks, from some previous appearance). Meanwhile the H&H orchestra, for its part, responded with the best playing of the night. A stern drama of tormented duty alternated with soothing, maternal themes until a deep resignation sank in just before the final reckoning; it was one of the most gripping performances of this particular warhorse I've yet heard.

The "London" was almost inevitably an anticlimax - in part I admit because we know it's close to the master's final orchestral statement, and so we want it to feel like a summation. It isn't, although there are certainly many fine things in it. I reliably find the first and second movements complex and compelling - the rather pointlessly gleaming third and fourth, somewhat less so. The orchestra played with spirit throughout, but were at their best in the Adagio, whose hauntingly dancing poise is perhaps the most resonant gesture in the piece.

Next came a curiosity - Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach's Sinfonia in G Major (probably from just before 1800). Egarr assured us from the podium that the Sinfonia was "very, very delightful music," but I'm afraid he didn't convince this listener. Not that this forgotten Bach's music lacked charm - particularly as a solid sample of the style of its period; it just felt busily thin, and elaborately conventional, next to such august neighbors; placed as it was, it almost felt like a negative example - of what Beethoven was forever struggling not to become.

Finally we reached the Fourth - that strangely indeterminate landscape. It opens with a premonition of the Ninth; later gestures might have slipped from the Sixth. But the ultimate Allegro ma non troppo feels like a conscious return to the standards of Haydn - a gleaming, almost machine-tooled classical "finale" (much like the conclusion of the "London"!) that cycles several times (at quite a clip in this case) but still leads nowhere. The performance here wasn't perfect - there were noticeable squawks from the winds (somebody was having trouble with a  recalcitrant reed), but it was always questing, exploratory.  If in the end, Beethoven abandons his own experiments at the conclusion of the Fourth, that wasn't Egarr's fault. What he did bring off, however - perhaps by chance - was a subtle sense that the great Ludwig van wasn't actually leaving his new frontiers behind.  He was, instead, bidding the great Haydn forever good-bye.

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