Last week, the Handel and Haydn Society had fortepianist Robert Levin playing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. This week, it was Boston Baroque’s turn, with South African fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout playing Beethoven’s Second. The generous bill opened with the Overture from Beethoven’s only ballet, “The Creatures of Prometheus,” continued with Romanian soprano Ana Maria Labin in two concert arias, Haydn’s “Scena di Berenice” and Beethoven’s “Ah! perfido,” and concluded with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
There was a good arc to the program. “The Creatures of Prometheus,” which premiered in 1801, is about the Titan who defied the gods; the five-minute Overture is a heaven stormer in the same way the Fifth Symphony is. Boston Baroque music director Martin Pearlman didn’t spare the timpani, but there was sweetness, too, in a fresh and occasionally rough-edged reading.
“Scena di Berenice” premiered in 1795 and “Ah! perfido,” for which it was a model, in 1796. Both arias have text by the Vienna-based poet Pietro Metastasio. In Haydn’s piece, the woman’s lover is about to be killed; in Beethoven’s, she’s about to be deserted. Labin was rich throughout her range, and she conveyed the requisite variety of moods, now angry, now pleading.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is actually his first in order of composition, and his most Mozartian. Bezuidenhout’s instrument, a period replica from 1999, was larger and fuller-toned than the one Levin performed on last week. Where in the first movement the orchestra was earnest, Bezuidenhout was mischievous, hopscotching through the initial falling motif and improvising a searching cadenza. In the hymn-like Adagio, he tamed the orchestra’s ominous outbursts, much the way the piano does in the Andante of Beethoven’s Fourth, but then he dashed away cheekily in the Rondo finale.
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, one of the most familiar works in Western music, has over the past two centuries taken on a grandeur that the composer, to judge by his fleet metronome markings, did not intend. Pearlman’s first-movement tempo didn’t match Beethoven’s, but the performance was authentic all the same: big, bold, imaginative in its treatment of the four-note motto, delicate one moment and overwhelming (more ferocious timpani) the next. The Andante started out as a brisk walk in the country before the storm clouds rolled in. Then, after a spooky, unsettling scherzo, the finale, at a tempo Beethoven would have approved (many performances are actually too fast), exploded in revolutionary zeal and triumph. Boston Baroque has no Beethoven in its catalog of recordings. This would be a fine place to start.
BOSTON BAROQUE LED BY MARTIN PEARLMAN
At: Jordan Hall, Friday March 4. Remaining performance Saturday March 5. Tickets $30-$95. 617-987-8600, www.bostonbaroque.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com