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Baroque's Beethoven program is a winner

Over the last few years Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque have been building a cycle of the Beethoven symphonies played on period instruments in an historically informed style. The process continued last night with two symphonies on one program, the Fourth and the Sixth (the ''Pastoral").

In his informal but informative remarks before the performances, Pearlman pointed out the familiar distinction between Beethoven's even-numbered and odd-numbered symphonies. ''The odd-numbered ones are the pieces that people would have written letters to the editor about, complaining about modern music," he said.

That may be one reason why the even-numbered symphonies tend to sound better on early instruments than the others, where Beethoven was pushing the envelope and demanding more than orchestras and instruments of his time could comfortably deliver. The ''Pastoral" is a particular winner because the all-important winds and woodwinds have such a wonderful bosky, outdoor timbre. All the key players offered plenty of personality and characterization -- oboist John Abberger, clarinetist Nina Stern, bassoonist Andrew Schwartz -- although only Richard Menaul, horn, attained the consistently beautiful sound and pinpoint intonation of flutist Christopher Krueger.

Pearlman took his time during much of the performance, allowing detail and interactions to be heard, and the opening of the second movement featured an Elysian interplay among the string parts. When the time came, Pearlman whipped up quite a thunderstorm, with tympanist John Grimes thundering away.

The genial and fizzy Sixth suffered from a few disheveled moments, and the Haydnesque musical jokes Pearlman alluded to found their visual equivalent in a frantic lunge to recover an oboe part that flew away from the music stand during the first movement. The performance was nevertheless enjoyable and instructive.

In the second movement Pearlman let us hear how the lilting accompaniment figure in the second violins continues throughout the movement, all the way to the tympani solo at the end.

The Beethoven/Haydn connection was explored in the other work on the program, Haydn's concert aria for soprano, ''Scena di Berenice," which Beethoven admired so much that it became a model for his own concert aria, ''Ah! Perfido." This brought the return of Lauren Skuce, from the New York City Opera, a singer who flourished in Boston Baroque's concert staging of Handel's ''Alcina" last season.

The piece is an extended mad scene, with vivid accompanied recitatives and two contrasting arias. Skuce has a dark, dramatic timbre, a wide range from flaring top notes to chiseled chest tones, and a temperament to match; she gives her all. She sang most of the piece from memory, and with a full panoply of theatrical gestures and facial expressions, somewhat compromised by occasional reference to the printed music. A more serious drawback was a fair amount of imprecisely defined pitch. This distraught heroine was more in tune with her feelings than with her music.

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