by Marvin J. Ward
Boston, MA, 9 November 2008. British pianist and conductor Richard Egarr made his début with the Handel and Haydn Society in both roles in a pair of concerts featuring music by Mozart and Beethoven this past weekend.
In a ‘Conductor’s Note’ in the program book, Egarr indicated that he chose the works on the program because they are among his favorites in the repertoire. The 1st half was devoted to Mozart’s Symphony No. 1 in Eb, K. 16, and his Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K. 488. The 2nd half opened with Beethoven’s Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43, and featured his Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93. When he came onto the stage to begin, he addressed the audience, asking for a show of hands of the 8-year olds, and then asked the rest of the audience if they could imagine their 8-year olds writing the work about to be played.
The opening and closing works essentially enclose the Classical period like parentheses. The Mozart symphony, written in 1764, was among the earliest to give some independence to the winds, only oboes and horns at this period, with bassoon doubling the string basses. It’s a 3-movement work, fast-slow-fast, the last being a dance-like rhythm, all quite typical of the early symphony as it grew out of the Baroque suite of disparate and varied dances into something more rationally balanced/structured and musically integrated. Beethoven’s 8th symphony, written in 1812, was his last Classical one, before the symphony became a more expressive Romantic form with his 9th, which led ultimately to Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz, Mahler, et al. It has the now standard 4 movements, with 3 of these being fast, and the dance-rhythm one inside, in this case the 3rd.
Egarr conducted the Mozart works from the 5-octave + 2 upper register notes fortepiano, a replica built in Washington, DC, in 1990 by Thomas and Barbara Wolf of an instrument built in Vienna ca. 1800 by Johann Schantz, Haydn’s favorite maker, and lent for the concerts by Robert Levin. For the symphony, its lid was removed and its tail turned into the orchestra; Egarr improvised figured bass notes and continuo on it as would have been done at the time, even if a harpsichord were used. For the concerto, written in 1786, the lid was put back in place and the instrument oriented in the more familiar position, so that the lid could focus its sound out into the hall. Performances were crisp, precise, with excellent dynamic control and tempo variation. Egarr marked the beat with his head, cued entrances with looks in the direction of the players involved, and directed with gestures between playing his notes. It was all very organic to the music and the players responded well, creating a warm, rich blend.
Works like this would not have been played in venues as large as Symphony Hall in their day, and the shortcomings of the fortepiano for this setting were apparent. One had to strain to hear the piano’s notes in the symphony, and it was lost in some of the forte passages in the concerto. This instrument, nonetheless, had a very appropriate tone for these works, in that its sound more closely resembled that of the plucked harpsichord string than other Viennese models by different makers of the same time period, such as some of those owned by the Frederick Collection in Ashburnham.
The Beethoven works were all played more dramatically and energetically as Egarr conducted, with score for the Overture, without for the symphony, without baton, using more vigorous hand and arm gestures, but in a no less organic way. The program notes, by Michael Ruhling, the H&H’s research fellow, described the symphony as “an ebullient, quite varied and at times intense emotional roller coaster [ride] so comically and easily presented that we didn’t notice our knuckles turning white.” The concluding Allegro vivace was indeed quite brisk. These were impressive, convincing, and satisfying readings that carried the audience right along, and it gave Egarr and the H&H ‘band’ a richly deserved standing ovation at the conclusion. Egarr had thanked the musicians for a rewarding week at the opening of the concert; they gave him rousing applause at its conclusion.
In a Q&A after the performance, Egarr commented that the players are all very committed to their work, in part because that is true of all those who work in historically-informed organizations, and in part because they are all contractual as opposed to salaried players, as are those in the big name European original instrument (and other) orchestras. None here are simply sawing away because it’s their job; they give their all and the result is of the highest quality. This is clearly a collaboration whose repeat will be warmly welcomed by all: Egarr, musicians, and audiences.