Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony and Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony might seem an odd couple for a program. The “Italian” Symphony, which Mendelssohn completed in 1833, when he was just 24, is a personal response to his tour of Italy in 1830 and 1831. The “Eroica,” which premiered in 1805, was Beethoven’s public tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte, though he withdrew the original “Bonaparte” title after Napoleon declared himself “Emperor of the French.” Yet in the crackling performances delivered Friday at Symphony Hall by guest conductor Richard Egarr and the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra, you could hear in the two symphonies a common humanity.
Mendelssohn was never satisfied with the “Italian,” and it was not published in his lifetime. Posterity has not shared his reservations. The symphony isn’t all exuberant sunshine: Both the somber Andante con moto and the kinetic Saltarello: Presto finale are in minor keys. Where you’d expect a scherzo, Mendelssohn offers a genial Menuetto that’s almost a lullaby, with softly whooping horns at the end that could be a fanfare right out of the composer’s incidental music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Right from the start, Egarr’s 44-piece period orchestra paid dividends: The smaller string section allowed the brass and winds and particularly the timpani to shine. His Mendelssohn was transparent but not hard-edged or driven; the sculpted dynamics and alert phrasing turned the music into an engaging conversation. The Andante, at a fast but steady clip, was a memento mori, a reminder of our mortality; the Menuetto, also at a fast clip, could have been a shade more Moderato, but the sweeping lines were irresistible, and so were the horns in the Trio. The finale was gossamer to start before turning furious, as if Shakespeare’s fairy king Oberon were throwing a tantrum. Mendelssohn on the usual modern instruments would never sound this vivid.
Neither would the “Eroica.” Beethoven’s Third Symphony is a breath of revolutionary fresh air blowing through Europe. The Marcia funebre seems to anticipate the death, or at least the fall, of Napoleon. Yet Beethoven’s political idealism and sense of humor live on in the witty Scherzo (with its own raw, glorious horns) and the triumphant Finale, which starts with the variations before getting to the theme.
Beethoven’s sense of humor is actually everywhere in this symphony. In the development section of the opening Allegro con brio, a new theme sneaks in as if it had been there all along, and a horn makes a “wrong” entrance to begin the recapitulation. Egarr brought all this out, and he underlined the composer’s little and not so little surprises, beginning with those famous initial two E-flat chords, which the orchestra barked out almost before the conductor had turned to face it. The symphony raced, but it also laughed and danced.
This was an “Eroica” to rival the one that Handel and Haydn did in 2012 under Canadian guest conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni; it was also on a par with the two Beethoven symphonies Egarr had previously done with H+H, the Fourth in 2014 and the “Pastorale” this past February. There could hardly be a better argument for period-instrument music-making.
Handel and Haydn Society
At Symphony Hall, Oct. 28
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.