British trumpeter Alison Balsom’s appearance with the Handel and Haydn Society this weekend promised a blast of solarity to melt the deep freeze that has engulfed New England. Balsom had to cancel her engagement owing to illness, but on Friday evening, despite leading a program with no superstar works, guest conductor Richard Egarr lit up Symphony Hall with superstar performances.
Egarr even created a symmetry with his choice of substitution: Beethoven’s “Coriolan” Overture, which replaced the Haydn Trumpet Concerto that Balsom was to play, had its premiere at the same 1807 concert that the final work on the program, Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, did. And the Haydn symphony Egarr selected, No. 104, Haydn’s last, shares with the Beethoven an air of martial jollity, as if it couldn’t decide whether it’s at war or peace.
Egarr, however, knows exactly what he’s about. His period-instrument orchestra of 38 with just 25 strings (first and second violins deployed antiphonally) had the right proportions. He drew from it the kind of crisp, piquant sound you never hear from full-size modern-instrument ensembles. And he created the kind of dramatic and textural contrasts that make Haydn and Beethoven work. The minor-key eruption in the Andante of the Haydn came as the surprise it should, and in the “Spiritoso” finale of this “London” symphony, you could hear the street cries of “fresh cod” and “hot cross buns” that are said to have inspired Haydn’s first theme.
The highlight of the Beethoven Fourth was the serenely romantic Adagio, which Berlioz termed “angelic” and whose nervous strings the French composer emulated in the “Scène aux champs” movement of his “Symphonie fantastique.” The moto perpetuo finale spun off now in this direction, now in that, Egarr making it clear how slyly funny Beethoven can be.
In between these two symphonies came a work by one of Bach’s grandsons, W. F. E. Bach. This performance of his Sinfonia in G must surely, as Egarr told the audience, have been an American premiere, but from the stirring first-movement theme, which recalls the melody of a Gluck aria, to the galloping hunting-horn finale, you had to wonder why we had to wait so long.