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H and H, Hogwood, and Levin dazzle with older styles

Christopher Hogwood's Handel & Haydn Society played in Symphony Hall last Friday.

Handel and Haydn Society

Conducted by Christopher Hogwood.

Featuring Robert Levin, Fortepianist.

Symphony Hall.

Friday, Oct.13

By Hur Koser
Staff Reporter

The Handel and Haydn Society opened its 181st season in Symphony Hall last Friday night, with conductor Christopher Hogwood in "A Beethoven Banquet," featuring the brilliant pianist Robert Levin.

A period orchestra and professional chorus, H&H Society is known for their "historically informed performances" (HIPs) on original, period instruments and styles. The organization was founded in Boston in 1815, and gave the first American performances of many Baroque masterpieces, including Handel's Messiah (1818), Samson and Solomon, as well as Bach's B Minor Mass and St. Matthew Passion. It has become a tradition for the group to give annual performances of Messiah in December (this year, it will be the 142nd annual production). Recently they have been presenting different versions of the two and a half-hour long piece, and this year, it is the 1750 Messiah (the main difference is the inclusion of a countertenor role).

HIPs are not actually a new concept. The idea became prominent in the mid-1950s, when musical scholars finally began to notice that, two hundred years ago, the orchestra looked quite different. Nevertheless, HIP did not become a widespread phenomenon, simply due to the technical difficulties involved in training musicians on original instruments. Christopher Hogwood, who is the founder and director of the Academy of Ancient Music, is one who decided to pursue the notion of HIP and integrate it firmly into classical music performances. Hogwood has been conducting H&H since 1986, and every single performance under his direction bears particular emphasis on correct style and instrument selection.

Therefore, performing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 in C with a fortepiano last Friday night was a natural choice for the group. And it is hard to imagine anyone else who would have fitted as perfectly to play the piece than pianist Robert Levin. A recognized Mozart scholar, Levin has been acclaimed, in the United States and Europe alike for his free fantasies and improvised cadenzas. He is particularly famous for his completions of many unfinished Mozart fragments (he most recently finished reconstructing the composer's famous Requiem).

Actually, Beethoven had already composed two piano concertos before he came up with No.1. It seems that he started working on the piece in 1796 and finished it in 1798, when he probably performed in the premiere himself in a concert organized by his teacher Haydn. Beethoven intended the concerto to be a showpiece for his flights of improvisation; it was customary (and financially beneficial) for a virtuoso performer in the Classical era to write concertos for himself to play.

Indeed, improvising the cadenzas in this concerto is technically quite challenging - something that pianist Robert Levin is an expert on. Levin fascinated his audience with his indefatigable concentration last Friday night; he not only played the fortepiano gorgeously, but also kept playing the part of the orchestra in his mind as well. The level of mental communication between Levin and the orchestra was simply remarkable. Levin's piano style is pure, his technique flawless, and his improvisations outstanding. It is no wonder why the audience, with an incessant shower of applause, called him back to the stage over and over again. However, the best part of the performance was when Hogwood had the orchestra play the melody of a familiar party tune: it was Levin's birthday.

Friday night's program also included Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, Op. 62 (this is his only opera overture) and his Symphony No.8 in F major, Op. 93. Beethoven composed the latter simultaneously with his Symphony No. 7, but No. 8 premiered two months later than No. 7. It seems that he favored the F major symphony over the A major No. 7; when it was remarked that the Eighth was much less popular than the Seventh, Beethoven replied, "That is because it is so much better." It is probably true that due to their energetic nature, Beethoven's odd-numbered symphonies tend to be more popular than those that have even number labels. Yet, Symphony No. 8 possesses a certain vitality - its last movement is particularly cheerful, fast and resolving.

It is really a unique experience to hear the symphony from the H&H orchestra. The only drawback is that the Boston Symphony Orchestra seems to go with the Symphony Hall better - probably because the BSO, with about a hundred musicians playing simultaneously, simply fills the large hall better.

The next performance by the Handel and Haydn Society will be on Nov. 3rd and 5th in Symphony Hall. The program will include Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture and his Italian Symphony No. 4; the concert will also feature Charles Neidich on the clarinet. There is a "Baroque Artistry" concert coming up on Jan. 12th featuring pieces from Vivaldi, J. S. Bach and Handel. Of course, Handel's Messiah will be making its annual appearance in December.