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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Concert Review: Crooks and Wires

Anima Eterna Brugge arrives at Lincoln Center.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Crooked: the horns of Anima Eterna Brugge.
Photo © 2015 Sydney Festival
The practice of performing classical music on instruments either built or designed in the 18th century is not a new one. It is refreshing to hear familiar music on unfamiliar instruments: wood-and-ivory flutes, cat-gut violins and natural brass horns, which require the players to manually switch between different-lengthed tubes of brass (called "crooks") in order to alter the range of available notes. On Thursday night, one such specialist orchestra made its U.S. debut: Anima Eterna Brugge.

Founded in that Belgian city 1987 by historically informed performance specialist and current music director Jos van Immerseel, Anima Eterna's mission is to explore the repertory using only the tools of the 18th and early 19th century. This concert, part of the chamber orchestra series offered at Alice Tully Hall under the aegis of Lincoln Center's Great Performers series was all Beethoven: the Egmont Overture, Piano Concerto No. 1 and as a capper, the evergreen Symphony No. 5 in C minor.

In some ways, Beethoven is an ideal focal point for a period orchestra, as his music bridges the "classical" 18th century to the Romantic 19th, as orchestras expanded and composers broke the rigid rules of form that had governed composition in the century before. This concert opened with Mr. van Immerseel leading a bracing account of the Egmont, with the raw, honest sound of the strings and horns squarely to the fore. Accentuated by copper kettledrums (played with hard wooden sticks) the Overture was delivered with bracing force.

That momentum was not maintained. For the piano concerto, Mr. van Immerseel vacated the podium, leaving the task of orchestral management to his concertmaster (and assistant conductor) Jakob Lehmann. The conductor-turned-pianist sat, hunched at the console of the long blond-wood fortepiano. He peered at the sheet music, letting his concertmaster cue the opening phrases using the movement of his violin bow.

Then the piano entered, sounding something like a harpsichord with its plinking high range and buzzy bass strings. The first movement was slow and lacked energy, and balance issues emerged between the fortepiano and the tutti. This instrument lacks most of the features that enable modern pianos to compete and balance dynamically with a symphony orchestra and its wooden frame and shallow soundbox provided a pinched,  nasal sound that ill-served the opening movement.

Mr. van Immerseel's playing was at once mysterious and unfocused, meandering through the long cadenza without providing much in the way of ornament or illumination. The slow movement followed, its delicacy undercut by the raw upper and lower registers of the fortepiano, its quality plaintive but unconvincing. The playful, skipping finale was the most troubling of all, with Mr. van Immerseel clearly making a huge effort to keep up the pace with the concertmaster and the orchestra.

For the second half of the evening, the piano was removed and the orchestra was augmented by a trio of antique trombones and an enormous contrabassoon, easily one of the tallest orchestral instruments to ever grace a woodwind section. Mr. van Immerseel led a vigorous performance of the famous Allegro con brio, allowing the unique tone qualities of the natural horns and wooden oboes to shine forth in their respective brief solo passages. The antique bassoons revealed themselves to have a bold and throaty quality, although the big contra stayed silent.

The next two movements featured the burnished tones of the Anima Eterna cellos, leading the Andante and the somber third movement with its key utterances for the horns. The whole final ensemble played in the surging last movement, with the rusticated tones of the strings and wins giving a raucous energy to Beethoven's major-key climax. That big contra had a buzzing and growling tone that was absolutely unique, giving able support to the tutti passages as this last movement boiled to a bustling close.

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