BSO offers mild Haydn, robust Wagner

November 4, 2011 at 2:39 am

By David Wright

James Morris performed music from Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" with Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Stu Rosner

It was either the weirdest or the most inspired programming idea of the month: on Thursday night, the Boston Symphony Orchestra unveiled a program of two Haydn symphonies and an hour’s worth of excerpts from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, with bass-baritone James Morris as featured soloist.

It was weird because of the wide gulf between Haydn’s small Classical orchestra and Wagner’s massive instrumental and vocal forces. Or maybe, less obviously, weird because Haydn was a cosmopolitan composer who liked thinking outside the box, and Wagner, in Meistersinger at least, was sending a profoundly conservative message about preserving the purity of German art.

But on the other hand, the program was inspired because these were two musical dramatists of the first order, operating in different centuries and social contexts. Why not compare them?

Unfortunately, this battle of the titans of 1760 and 1860 never quite came off, because Haydn didn’t get a fair shake in the concert’s first half. The performances of his Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 100 (a nice numerological gimmick) were brisk but colorless, a throwback to the bad old days when many musicians didn’t quite seem to “get” Haydn.

Haydn didn’t invent the symphony, as is sometimes said, but he took a modest genre of instrumental music and turned it into something that would eventually require multimillion-dollar non-profit organizations to perform. How that happened is evident in both of the symphonies on this program. The Symphony “No. 1” (not literally Haydn’s first, researchers say) draws on Vivaldi and C.P.E. Bach for its dramatic effects, but is unmistakably Haydn in its restless, fertile musical imagination.

At the other end of Haydn’s career, the Symphony No. 100, known as the “Military” and composed for London during a time of war in the early 1790s, can still shock us with its minor-key outbursts that bristle with drums and cymbals—but only in a more forceful performance than the one led by Frühbeck de Burgos Thursday night, where the intrusions of percussion came across as just bits of sparkle.

Wagner fared better at this concert, in a Meistersinger compilation that included instrumental interludes and choral and solo singing, but didn’t attempt to recapitulate the opera’s plot. The orchestral sound in Symphony Hall was not opulent, but the splendid Prelude to Act I still lifted the listener, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus showed its versatility in chaste chorales and raucous scenes of young apprentices.

Bass-baritone Morris performed the three great monologues of the cobbler/singing master Hans Sachs with growing conviction from one to the next. Although a little dry vocally, Morris projected dignity, focus, and a crystal-clear sense of Wagner’s poetic text. Tenor Matthew DiBattista sang his few lines as the apprentice David with ringing top tones that rose above the orchestra.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday. bso.org; 617-266-1200.

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