Tuesday, November 02, 2010

More Haydn

On Sunday afternoon, Joshua and I went to Symphony Hall to hear The Handel And Haydn Society perform two Haydn symphonies.

The first work on the program was Haydn’s Symphony No. 83 (“Hen”) from Haydn’s set of six “Paris” symphonies. The final work on the program was Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 (“Surprise”) from Haydn’s set of twelve “London” symphonies.

We enjoyed the Haydn immensely. Haydn’s music is among the most intellectually-engaging music ever written: the music constantly surprises the listener with something unexpected, yet the bounds of Classicism are never violated. I could listen to Haydn every single day and have no cause for complaint.

Sunday afternoon’s performances were very moment-by-moment—conductor Bernard Labadie is more adept at Baroque repertory (contrast and repetition) than music from The Classical Period (sustained development)—but such limitations did not hamper our enjoyment of the Haydn. The performances were fresh and energetic, and we enjoyed hearing the works performed by an ensemble of period instruments.

Between the Haydn symphonies, the orchestra played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. The soloist was Robert Levin, who played on a period fortepiano.

Levin is not a professional pianist, and he is not a virtuoso, and it would be unfair to hold him to standards routinely expected of a true pianist. Under such circumstances, it would be most appropriate to describe Levin’s performance on Sunday as “thoughtful” and leave it at that, because that is about as far as one may go without fibbing. Listeners must take or leave Levin’s public performances as the work of a dedicated musicologist intent upon demonstrating his own personal “take” on period performance practice. Other than satisfying one’s academic interest or morbid curiosity (whichever the case may be), all other expectations must be checked at the door prior to a Levin performance.

Nonetheless, I believe that it is not unfair to note Levin’s use of odd cadenzas—he is said to improvise them on the spot—and I submit that it is not unkind to suggest that Levin perhaps reconsider this particular practice. I was not timing Levin’s cadenzas with a stopwatch on Sunday afternoon, but my recollection is that the cadenzas—each involving a veritable Cook’s Tour of Western music theory—lasted several hours.

Levin “edits” a local website, “The Boston Musical Intelligencer”. This online publication covers and reviews concert activity in Boston. Within hours of Friday evening’s performance of the program whose repeat performance Josh and I attended on Sunday afternoon, there was published on “The Boston Musical Intelligencer” an exceedingly lengthy review of Levin’s performance. While the review mentioned the two Haydn symphonies as mere afterthought, hundreds of words were showered upon Levin’s performance, which was extolled to the skies in torrents of detail and cascades of encomiums.

In a lifetime of concertizing, Wilhelm Kempff never once received such an overwhelming—indeed, awe-inspiring—outpouring of praise.