From Bland to Sublime
Mixed Performance from Boston BaroqueBy Jonathan Richmond
Martin Pearlman, conductor
John Gibbons, fortepiano
Feb. 27 and Mar. 1, 8 p.m.
Boston Baroque’s period instruments proved to be real winners in Beethoven’s Second Symphony last night. The immediate nature of their sound heightened the drama, while the lack of resonance -- typical of the instruments Beethoven would have known -- allowed instrumental voices to display character, an advantage fully exploited by the players under Martin Pearlman’s direction.
The symphony opened with grandeur, the strings majestically shaped and attacking with bite. Wind playing was especially striking in the Larghetto, the lower winds exhibiting a brooding quality and providing a richness of experience that came from the perception of their individual sounds blending together in heavenly harmony. The vibratoless strings played with beguiling lyricism, illuminated by cool wind colors rising to prominence and sinking back into ensemble with grace and naturalness. The question and answer session of winds and strings alternating in their delivery of the musical message like two philosophy students -- who might also be lovers -- striving for consensus, was ravishing.
Waves of sound built excitingly in the third movement, while the concluding Allegro molto exposed qualities of shadow and light en route to a triumphant conclusion.
So ended the concert with Martin Pearlman’s orchestra really into its element. Alas, the two pieces that came before made for less happy listening. Beethoven’s First Symphony was given a genial performance, but one which failed to hold together. The tempi were unusually relaxed for a period instruments performance. Modern strings can help keep the ensemble together with their resonance and vibrato when the conductor goes off in a daydream, but the early instruments are far more exposed, and it showed last night. The second movement proved particularly problematic because of its lack of energy. Discipline and inventiveness were lacking from this normally articulate band.
Mozart’s D Minor Piano Concerto concluded the first part of the evening, with mixed results. I found the first and last movements on the bland side. This was polite musicmaking, with soloist John Gibbons providing workmanlike playing that rarely went below the surface and the orchestra failing to find the revelation that Mozart offers the seeker in almost every measure.
The Romanze came across best because soloist and ensemble displayed their most involved relationship. Gibbons’ simple and to-the-point approach proved piquant here, especially when met with sympathetic and at times sublime orchestral responses. As with so much in Mozart, there is more than one path to truth. Gibbons played with the innocence of Mozart’s playful operatic characters, Cherubino and Papageno, and at times found a delight that can escape more introspective performers. It is a shame that the concerto concluded on a dull note, even if any disappointment was more than eclipsed by the wonders of the Beethoven with which Pearlman brought the evening to an end.
There is a repeat performance tomorrow night.