As the time approached 3 p.m. on Sunday, the line at the Symphony Hall box office reached the end of the block — perhaps the result of late arrivals on a day snarled by Red Sox postseason traffic? The Handel and Haydn Society was out to knock a few out of the park, too, as Bach Collegium Japan maestro Masaaki Suzuki made his first appearance with the period-instrument ensemble, conducting the final symphonies by Haydn and Beethoven.
Suzuki’s sprightly, taut conducting vivified Haydn’s Symphony No. 104, “London.” Though the piece does not feature any of Haydn’s more obvious musical pranks, the composer’s playful spirit shined brightly. With concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky as guide, both the strings’ stage presence and their musicianship were infused with the kind of zest more often seen in quartets than large ensembles. Suzuki led the piece at a brisk tempo that peaked in the hurtling gallop of the final movement. Gleams of flute and oboe emerged exquisitely.
After intermission, Suzuki plunged into Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with vigor. It was unsentimental and thrilling, Beethoven with bite. The speed unfortunately lent a heavy bluster to the main theme of the second movement scherzo, and the players seemed to fall out of tune with one another both in mind-set and in pitch. An intriguing sense of urgency arose in the sparser trio section, which faltered slightly when a natural horn, the notoriously finicky predecessor to the modern day horn, decided it wasn’t up to those top two notes. The chorus and soloists entered after the second movement, making for an unsatisfying break in the momentum, but the song-like Andante movement renewed that forward thrust, the melody neat and sweet. The piquant timbres of historically informed brass were a striking touch when in tune, but jarred when off pitch in loud chords.
When the final movement’s famous theme appeared, countermelodies in the winds and lower strings rose above it, accenting a rarely emphasized dimension. (Everyone knows that “Ode to Joy” melody anyway.) Bass-baritone Dashon Burton’s “O, Freunde!” was inviting and buoyant, in contrast to the table-pounding exhortation it often becomes. Suzuki’s blazing tempo did no favors to the soloists — Burton, soprano Joélle Harvey, mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala, and tenor Tom Randle — who all seemed out of breath at points, and in busier sections sacrificed integrity of tone for speed.
The 42-voice chorus, prepared by Suzuki, made a splendid sound. Its compact size allowed for a nuanced, shimmering mix of vocal colors. The celestial slow sections for chorus and soloists offered the only moments of luxuriance in the symphony before Suzuki led it roaring to the finish.
HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY
At Symphony Hall, SundayZoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.