By Marvin J. Ward
BOSTON – Many musical organizations schedule Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as a climax towards which a season builds, programming it in their season’s closing concert. The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s long-standing tradition of offering the work as the close of its Tanglewood summer season is a well-known example.
But harpsichordist, composer, and conductor Martin Pearlman, founder and music director of Boston Baroque, the nation’s oldest period-instrument ensemble, programmed the Ninth to open its 40th anniversary season. It took place on Nov. 8 with a concert under the title “Voices of Joy” in the New England Conservatory of Music’s 1,019-seat Jordan Hall, where it was performed for the first time 35 years ago this month.
The performance of the Ninth marked the culmination of the organization’s complete, historically informed traversal of the Beethoven symphonies that began 25 years ago with No. 7 in 1987-88 (a first in America), and continued with No. 3 in 2000-01, Nos. 1 and 2 in 2002-03, Nos. 4 and 6 in 2004-05, and Nos. 5 and 8 in 2007.
The orchestra played its first concert in the 200-seat University Lutheran Church in Harvard Square in January 1974 and moved to Harvard’s 600-seat Paine Hall in 1977. The organization, which began as a solely instrumental ensemble, was founded in 1973 under the name Banchetto Musicale, acquired non-profit status in 1976, established its chorus in 1981, and changed its name to Boston Baroque in 1991. It gave the first performance in America on period instruments of Handel’s Messiah in November 1981, subsequently presenting the work in New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1984, when it became the first period-instrument ensemble to perform there. Earlier in 1981, in collaboration with Boston Lyric Opera and the Boston Early Music Festival, it offered the first American period-instrument performance of Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea, which featured Pearlman’s performance edition (revised and revived in 2000-01) and was taped by the BBC.
Other American firsts of historically informed opera performances followed, including Mozart’s Don Giovanni in 1986 (broadcast nationally on public radio and reprised in 2006) and The Magic Flute in 1989; Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride in 1999-2000; his Alceste in collaboration with Opera Boston in 2004-05; Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses in 2002-03; Handel’s Xerxes in 2008; and his Partenope in 2012.
Boston Baroque’s first concert of the 2013-14 season opened with a short, rarely heard Beethoven work, Elegischer Gesang (Elegiac Song), Op. 118, composed in 1814 for a friend and supporter, Baron Johann Pasqualati (possibly the author of the anonymous text), whose wife had died in childbirth three years earlier. The work is scored for vocal and string quartets but was performed here by a small chorus and a string ensemble (without basses) of approximately 20 members each, thus preserving, in a larger venue than that for which it would have been originally intended, the delicate vocal-instrumental balance. Although an elegy is inherently somewhat sad, it is also calm, quiet, serene, and joyful in the sense that the person being remembered is believed to be in a better place. It consequently afforded a superb balance as an opener for the monumental Ninth Symphony’s fourth-movement, jubilant close of the evening. The performance was exquisite, with crystal-clear diction and careful dynamic control, and it made me wonder why the work is so neglected.
The Ninth Symphony, Op. 125, was premiered in Vienna in 1824, its opus number’s increase by only 7 from the Elegiac Song‘s indicating the difficulty the composer was experiencing during the period, due in large measure to increasing deafness. The notes in the program book, as well as the pre-concert talk by Laura Stanfield Prichard and Pearlman’s own pre-performance comments, stressed how the work pushed the demands on the instruments and the singers to their limits and beyond – some sopranos could not sing the high notes and simply didn’t try during the premiere – and how the music was different from anything the audience had ever experienced. We are oblivious to all of this today because it’s heard so frequently on the air and live. But with a period-instrument ensemble, the Ninth Symphony’s revolutionary aspects become abundantly clear. The skill of the musicians in this performance was also apparent throughout and brought the audience rapidly to its feet when it ended. Pearlman had to return to the stage three times.
Another note by Pearlman in the program book dealt with the issue of the metronome markings, which Beethoven added by dictation later, after he acquired a sample of this then-new invention, and which many feel are unachievably fast. Pearlman said he would be respecting most of them, and the final choral movement was certainly electrically charged, thanks in part to the superb contribution of the four soloists: soprano Leah Partridge, mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero, tenor William Burden, and bass-baritone Kevin Deas. Their voices were individually striking and blended gorgeously, thrillingly even, yet neither the diction of the singers nor the precision of the instruments’ playing was in any way compromised. This, too, was most certainly an element in eliciting the audience’s jubilant reaction. I was also impressed by the sublime rendering of the slow movement and the sweetness of the sounds produced by the gut strings and the earlier brass and woodwind instruments in comparison with their modern counterparts, sounds that are better revealed at slower tempi.
A feature of this performance that struck me was the positions of the players on the stage. The basses were behind the first violins, the cellos in the center, next to the first violins, the violas to their left, and the second violins to theirs, on the stage left front. Horns were next to the first violins with woodwinds to their left, all behind the cellos. The timpani were behind the second violins. I assumed that Pearlman determined this since it does not reflect any historical formation of which I am aware, but it distributed the various tonal ranges more evenly across the stage.
All of these elements led to what was for me a memorable performance in which details and nuances were revealed and made clear—nuances that are lost in the customary modern renderings by massive forces, even though they more accurately reflect those of the 1824 premiere that featured a full theater orchestra augmented with 75 musicians and a chorus of more than double Boston Baroque’s 36-member (nine per part) one. I appreciated both the revolutionary and the artistically creative aspects of the work in a way that I never had before, no matter how thrilling every performance of it always is. It set the achievement bar extremely high.
For details about Boston Baroque, click here. Boston Baroque’s first disc, released on the Titanic label in 1978, was of Telemann orchestral suites and a concerto for flute and recorder. In 1984 the Arabesque label issued the ensemble’s recordings of Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato and Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass. The orchestra signed with Telarc in 1992 as it was turning 20, with numerous releases following, several of which received high critical praise and were nominated for and/or received prestigious international awards. Approaching its 40th anniversary in 2012, it switched to the Scottish audiophile label Linn, with the first two releases being Haydn’s Creation and, just last month, his Lord Nelson Mass and Symphony 102.
Marvin J. Ward was a founder of Classical Voice of New England. Since April 2011, he is a Five Colleges Associate with Five Colleges, Inc., based at Smith College in Northampton, MA. His research and writing focus on music, currently French, and performances on historic pianos at the Frederick Collection in Ashburnham, MA.