In the hands of the American Classical Orchestra under the direction of Thomas Crawford, period instruments are anything but stodgy and academic. While it’s common to hear very old (baroque or “early”) music played on instruments of its time – viols, sackbuts, theorbos and the like – there are fewer opportunities to hear the well-known orchestral music of the great classical composers like Beethoven on instruments of their own time.
How did Beethoven hear his own music (before he went deaf, that is)? Of course, we can’t really know, as Maestro Crawford pointed out at Thursday night’s concert at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. But we can hear it played using the same “tools” the musicians had in their hands – in, say, 1813, at a benefit concert for Austrian and Bavarian soldiers wounded in the Napoleonic Wars. That’s where Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 premiered. Or seven years earlier, in 1806, when the first revision of his only opera Fidelio (then called Leonore) was introduced by what is now known as the “Leonore Overture No. 3” – the work that also opened the ACO’s concert, the first of its 31st season.
From the swelling opening chords of this famous piece, high drama and sublime beauty mingled with exquisite tonal balance and finely calibrated dynamics. Attuning one’s ears to the different sound of the period instruments, particularly the winds (the flute purer and less airy, the oboe and bassoon less nasal than their modern counterparts), it was easy to get lost in the dense harmonies and sweet complexities of the score.
More eye-opening was the Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 73 (“Emperor”). The young pianist Jiayan Sun played a fortepiano recently made for Malcolm Bilson (who was in attendance), an elegant-looking replica of an 1812 Viennese instrument. From it Sun drew an expressive, liquid sound, muted and “small” compared with that of a modern piano. Clearly accustomed to period instruments, he applied an appropriately delicate, spidery touch to the keyboard.
The performance was quite revelatory. In the quietest upper-register passages, the fortepiano chimed almost like a celesta. In the mid-range it hummed like a harp. And when played hard in the lower register, it sounded plucky, like a harpsichord. Untraditionally, the audience applauded after the first movement. It just seemed the thing to do after the commanding performance by Sun and the orchestra, not to mention Maestro Crawford’s animated conducting.
I’ve heard the concerto before, but I felt as if I hadn’t. I can’t say the same for the Seventh Symphony, with the timeless melodies of the second and third movements in particular. The performance was a joy from start to finish. Crawford accentuated the humor in the quiet, spacious lead-in to the main, fast section of the first movement, then played up the playfulness in the martial, galloping rhythms. His enthusiasm for this work, which he has memorized, translated to sheer fun for the audience.
I’ve always loved the second movement with its distinctive melodic hooks. The orchestra played with such sensitivity and such a warm, intimate sound that with eyes closed I easily imagined the strings were playing for me in my living room, in contrast to the joyful, ballet-like, crisply played third movement. And the finale, controlled bombast at its best, featured standout work from the strings, the tympani, and the natural (valveless) horns.
With rich harmonics, thrilling tension, and remarkable spatial awareness, the ACO made a thoroughly convincing case for how worthwhile it is to make the effort to present works like Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 with original instruments. The all-Beethoven program made a stellar start to the orchestra’s new season. See the ACO’s full schedule.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B005A53RYG][amazon template=iframe image&asin=061805474X]