These days, the thunderbolt of a symphony that Beethoven hurled at the world in 1824 generally manifests as a cozy campfire around which listeners link arms and toast marshmallows. Catching that lightning in a bottle is the challenge that faces any contemporary conductor and orchestra. Friday at Jordan Hall, Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque began the celebration of their 40th season with a Beethoven Ninth that glowed but didn’t quite ignite.
Even a big, slow-moving, modern-instrument Ninth can do more than smolder. Otto Klemperer’s incendiary 1950s performances with the Philharmonia Orchestra embraced Beethoven’s contradictions and ambivalences: the craggy first movement’s lapse into a funeral march, the abrupt truncation of the Scherzo, the unsettling intrusion of militant trumpets into the Adagio, and the even more unsettling moment in the finale when the chorus sings Schiller’s “Beyond the stars he [God] must dwell” and the orchestra answers with desultory twinkling.
Pearlman led a Ninth that on the surface was closer to what Beethoven had in mind. His period-instrument orchestra numbered just 56, and he paid heed to the composer’s often fleet metronome markings. The performance, however, was not particularly quick or light-footed — or high-powered. It merely motored along. Attacks were gentle, the violins (firsts and seconds seated antiphonally, as they were in Beethoven’s time) were thin, and the strings tended to get covered by the rest of the orchestra. The winds were ripe, and the brass valiant, but most of the ferocity was provided by Robert Schulz’s timpani.
And though Pearlman’s shapings and shadings are generally subtle, here they bordered on non-existent. The return of the opening D-minor theme in D major at the beginning of the first movement’s recapitulation didn’t surprise; the funeral march didn’t register. The second-movement Scherzo and Trio seemed to go at the same tempo; so did the third-movement Adagio and Andante. The finale didn’t swing. The chorus sang fervently and enunciated well; the quartet of soloists — soprano Leah Partridge, mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero, tenor William Burden, and bass Kevin Deas — was engaging but not memorable.
By way of providing an opportunity for latecomers to be seated, Pearlman began with a Beethoven rarity, his “Elegiac Song” for strings and chorus. Beethoven wrote this brief piece in 1814, in memory of the wife of a friend, Baron Johann Pasqualati, who had died in childbirth three years earlier. The text — perhaps written by Pasqualati himself — is consoling, but the music, riddled with doubt, seems to mark the beginning of the composer’s introspective late period. Pearlman conveyed that sense; he had more to say in the song’s six minutes than he did in the symphony’s 65.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.