Period instruments put exclamation point on the Fifth

Vivid Beethoven from H&H Society

Guest conductor Richard Egarr and his players kept the tension alive and building throughout. Guest conductor Richard Egarr and his players kept the tension alive and building throughout. (Marco Borggreve)
By Harlow Robinson
Globe Correspondent / March 22, 2011

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Finding something new to say with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is no mean feat. One might compare it to an actor seeking a fresh approach to “Hamlet.’’ But on Sunday afternoon in a packed Symphony Hall, the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra and guest conductor Richard Egarr made us feel like we were meeting this most overexposed of masterpieces for the first time.

That the orchestra was performing as usual on period instruments helped, of course. To hear the Fifth the way Beethoven and his first audience would have heard it creates a special immediacy, wiping away the layers of Romanticism that have blurred its rugged profile. Even more, Egarr and his players tore into the score with a vigor, commitment, and hunger that kept the tension alive and building throughout.

Music director of the Academy of Ancient Music, Egarr is no stranger to the Handel and Haydn Orchestra. His conducting style is relaxed and minimal; often he stops moving his arms and hands altogether and simply nods to get what he wants. He seems to enjoy a special rapport with the orchestra’s recently appointed concertmaster, the demonstrative Aisslinn Nosky, who attacked each entrance as though life depended on it. Principal oboist Stephen Hammer contributed fine solo work in the first movement. One of this Symphony’s innovations is the use of three trombones; they entered majestically in the finale’s opening bars.

The program featured three other works that influenced Beethoven, one by Mozart and two by Haydn. Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni has similar emotional depth, an almost schizophrenic alternation between light and dark. Egarr underplayed the gloom and doom in a restrained reading. Here, and in the Beethoven, Egarr emphasized suggestive dramatic pauses, framed by sharp cutoffs, tight phrasing, and clean entrances.

From Haydn came the Symphony No. 101 in D Major (“The Clock’’) and the Keyboard Concerto No. 11, also in D Major. Egarr stressed the wit and levity of the symphony, whose name comes from the exaggerated tick-tock figures given to the lower strings in the second movement. Flutist Christopher Krueger and bassoonist Andrew Schwartz bantered with comic lyricism in the minuet.

For the concerto, Egarr conducted from the pianoforte keyboard, delivering a jocular, almost casual account of the solo part, with a strong feeling of improvisation in the cadenzas. The infectious final Rondo all’Ungarese movement was, as promised in brief introductory remarks, “a total Hungarian romp.’’

Harlow Robinson can be reached at


At: Symphony Hall, Sunday