Beethoven’s Second Symphony can sometimes get lost between its illustrious symphonic siblings, the bold First Symphony and the epoch-making Third. But in a driving, vital performance, Grant Llewellyn and the Handel and Haydn Society Period Instrument Orchestra reminded us that the Second Symphony, too, is a blazing product of Beethoven’s early imagination.
Llewellyn, the former music director of H&H, conducted with a firm grasp of Beethoven’s mercurial idiom and an astute understanding of the orchestra’s considerable strengths.
Tempo choices were unerringly apt. A brisk yet measured pace emphasized the pungent syncopations of the first movement and displayed the strings’ trenchant precision, while a flowing tempo for the second movement drew out its lilting lyricism and allowed the superb woodwinds to revel in its luxuriant textures. If the scherzo was a bit breathless, the final movement was ideal: Its plunging opening gesture set off a firestorm of exuberant virtuosity. In the final pages, it was impossible not to be roused by the revolutionary drive of this music. Here was Beethoven at his most elemental.
In the first half of the program, Mozart’s Haffner Symphony, K. 385, received a similarly bracing treatment; it might have benefited instead from more grace and flexibility.
Perhaps Llewellyn intended to highlight the affinities between these two D-major symphonies, but in the Mozart his brisk tempi felt imposed rather than natural. The second movement lacked the tenderness one might have expected, although the H&H ensemble produced a glowing, fresh sound here and throughout.
It was the quality of sound and fineness of ensemble playing that distinguished the Haydn Sinfonia Concertante, a kind of concerto for violin, cello, oboe, and bassoon, which rounded out the first half of the program. Aisslinn Nosky, the brilliant H&H concertmaster, was joined by Guy Fishman, principal cello; Stephen Hammer, principal oboe; and Andrew Schwartz, principal bassoon.
The four soloists’ triumph was ultimately a tribute to their musical generosity; in every movement there were congenial conversations among the players and felicities of blended timbre. Llewellyn made sure that all players shared the same rich sound-world. But he also knew when to stand back and let a world-class orchestra and its principal players shine.