Handel & Haydn's "Italian" & "Eroica" Symphonies: Striking a Chord

Richard Egarr conducts Beethoven's "Eroica" at Symphony Hall
(photo: Kat Waterman)

Boston's Handel and Haydn Society's recent performance of Mendelssohn's Fourth Symphony (the “Italian” ) and Beethoven's Third Symphony (the “Eroica”) at Symphony Hall was a revelatory experience, reflecting their similarities as well as their differences. The choice of two relative war horses from the orchestral repertory might have seemed an unusually safe one, but it was to prove an intelligent move given this orchestra's size which is closer to that which existed at the time of their composition (in 1833 and 1806 respectively). Both symphonies open with a forceful chord (in the Mendelssohn) or two (in the Beethoven) and a rising theme in their first movements, followed by a second movement of processionals, that of monks in the Italian, whereas in the Eroica, a funeral march. The third movements of both are based on dances, and the final movements harken back to the musical ideas introduced in their first movements. The pieces are thus quite similar in basic structure, but mostly opposite in their moods.

The Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra, under the baton (or, rather, lack thereof) of Conductor Richard Egarr was a treat to listen to as well as to watch. Aside from a slight glitch of one entry by the horns in the Eroica, it was a virtually flawless performance. The conducting style of this maestro is unusual to say the least. He conveys his desired tempi and volume often not only with his empty hands but also with various parts of his body, while standing without a podium, at the same height as his orchestra and without needing to consult a score. At the commencement of the Beethoven, he had scarcely reached center stage when he turned slightly to the orchestra to direct those two famous chords. This was indicative of his style throughout, always in command yet seemingly effortless. There was also a distinct response from the players, most visibly in the case of Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky with her sharp, energetic and contagious artistry.

The ability to experience these works in a venue of this size with its acoustic perfection while with a smaller orchestra was an unexpectedly moving one, which the Handel and Haydn Society will be reprising on Sunday October 30th at 3 p.m. It's an opportunity that shouldn't be missed.

The remaining H & H Concerts for the current season are as follows:

Handel's Messiah
-Nov. 25, 26 & 27 at Symphony Hall

Bach Christmas
-Dec.15 & 18 at Jordan Hall

Mozart & Haydn
January 27 & 29 at Symphony Hall

Glories of the Italian Baroque
-February 10 & 12 at Jordan Hall

McGegan & Mozart
-March 3 & 5 at Symphony Hall

Monteverdi Vespers
-April 7 & 9 at Jordan Hall/Sanders Theatre

Handel's Semele
-May 5 & 7 at Symphony Hall

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