The British keyboardist and conductor Richard Egarr is one of the leading figures in the period-instrument community today. He is an ebullient and energetic musician, part of a generation that sees historically informed performance not as a matter of faithfulness to the past but as a way of infusing music of earlier centuries with vigor and intensity. Those qualities were front and center last night when he made a highly impressive debut with the Handel and Haydn Society, in a program of works by Mozart and Beethoven.
He began at the beginning: Mozart's First Symphony, written when the composer was only 8. In a sense, we're too easily given to see Mozart's earliest works for what they're not, the better to appreciate the astonishing rapidity of his development.
Yet Egarr made a convincing case that the symphony is worth hearing irrespective of context, drawing out the music's union of innocence and confidence, as well as some subtle shifts between light and darkness in the brief slow movement.
The First Symphony shows Mozart introducing himself to a musical form; his late piano concertos show him transforming another. Egarr led the A-major concerto, K. 488, from the fortepiano in a lucid and elegant performance that featured a tight rapport with the orchestra. The slow movement, one of Mozart's great tragic utterances, was a highlight, as were the dialogues between the fortepiano's crisp articulation and the slightly unrefined sound of the winds.
The Beethoven part of the concert began with the "Creatures of Prometheus" overture, which opened with huge, attention-seizing chords. Liberated from the keyboard, Egarr conducted largely with fitful jerks of his arms. Yet if his movements were somewhat awkward, there was no gainsaying the results he achieved, especially the near-perfect balance between richness and clarity in the orchestral texture and the prominence of the cellos and basses.
Capping the evening was a lithe, quicksilver reading of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony. Though the performance got off to an oddly subdued start, it caught fire in the middle of the first movement with some raucous interjections from the brass.
Throughout, Beethoven seems to do something he does in no other symphony: enjoy himself. There are surprises around nearly every corner, and the conductor drew attention to all of them. The finale was turned loose at a mercurial tempo, and executed brilliantly.
Egarr's work was well appreciated, not only by the audience but by the orchestra. Someone should ensure that he returns again soon.