Period-instrument performances no longer have the same power to shock that they did in the movement’s infancy, when their effect was akin to that of stripping centuries of grime off of old paintings. But they retain their capacity to augment and refocus what we hear in the music of the past.
A stellar example of this was the Handel and Haydn Society’s performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, on a Friday program led by guest conductor Richard Egarr. The piece was written at the end of Mozart’s life for the basset clarinet, a variant of the normal clarinet. The instrument — which H&H principal clarinetist Eric Hoeprich reconstructed two decades ago and played on Friday — looks something like a cross between a typical clarinet and an alto saxophone, and it has a deeper range than the standard instrument.
The performance was a minor revelation. In contrast to the mellow, urbane sound we normally associate with the concerto, there were paper-thin orchestral textures and crisp, bracing rhythms. The basset clarinet had a narrower, more penetrating sound than a normal clarinet, and its low notes had a striking timbre. It also seemed softer dynamically, accentuating the tight integration between soloist and orchestra in this piece. The middle movement was very slow, very quiet, and radiantly beautiful.
Richard Egarr, conductor, Eric Hoeprich, clarinet
All this added to our picture of a familiar piece without disturbing what we already know — that this is one of Mozart’s most subtly brilliant creations. Hoeprich’s playing of this odd instrument was wonderfully fluent and nimble, especially in the finale.
The second half of the program was given over to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Egarr’s reading was brisk and palpably physical; every accent carried a punch. The second movement was played so quickly that this highly sectionalized music seemed like the spinning out of a single idea.
Egarr conducted mostly with big, dramatic gestures. The orchestra had its messier moments but its enthusiasm was infectious. The finale had some raucous outbursts, especially from timpanist John Grimes, who was the first to take a well-deserved solo bow at the end.
The concert began with Mozart’s brief, somber “Masonic Funeral Music,” which featured a delightfully wheezy sound in the wind section. Egarr has some of the best verbal asides in the business; speaking from the stage, he cheerfully called the piece “five minutes of miserable Masonic Mozart.”