Handel and Haydn Society serves up familiar Vivaldi and four colorful rarities
The stage at Symphony Hall Friday night was mostly empty, but the auditorium was packed to hear the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra, led by music director Harry Christophers, perform a program of 18th-century Italian (or Italian-influenced) overtures and concertos, ending with The Four Seasons.
Perhaps it was Vivaldi’s greatest hit that put all those bodies in the seats, but the other works—two Handel overtures, two Corelli concertos, and a symphony by Johann Christian Bach—were anything but mere curtain-raisers. The period-instrumented, period-sized ensemble (numbering just a couple of dozen players) adjusted nimbly in sound and style to the character of each piece.
But the main event was Vivaldi’s famous foursome of violin concertos, and the opportunity it gave the orchestra to introduce its new concertmaster, Aisslinn Nosky, in the starring role. Sporting a gray velvet tailcoat and magenta hair, Nosky seemed decked out for a bold and edgy performance of the solo part, but this proved slow to emerge. In the early movements, good intonation deserted her in some double-stop passages, and some of the rapid scalework, difficult enough in an average performance, seemed almost out of reach at Christophers’s very brisk tempos.
But Nosky found her footing as the performance went on, brightening her tone and attacking those fast scales. She sounded amusingly dozy in the “sleep” Largo of Autumn, sliding between the long notes, but rendered the “fireside” slow movement of Winter—the most aria-like music in the entire set—with nobility and tenderness. The ensuing “battle of the winds,” the furious movement that closes the cycle, seemed to pose no terrors for her at all.
Often conducting one beat to the bar, Christophers kept the music flying along, and the players responded in tight ensemble, light on their feet and matching the soloist fiery scale for fiery scale. Their silky nonvibrato tone sounded surprisingly rich at times, a reminder that the old days of undernourished-sounding period-instrument ensembles are mostly behind us. At the same time, the crystalline Symphony Hall acoustics allowed one to enjoy the interplay of the parts.
The audience, perhaps chastened by having interrupted the Bach symphony with applause after the first movement, sat silent through all four concertos, as if The Four Seasons were a single item. As familiar as this music is, the various episodes come thick and fast, and the question “Which piece is this?” may have occurred to some as the twelve movements scrolled by without a break.
In the other works on the program, Christophers and the orchestra vividly projected the personalities of three Baroque masters. Each half of the program began with a zesty opera overture by Handel, the turbulent Agrippina curtain-riaser to start the concert and a bustling Rodrigo opener to precede the Vivaldi set.
The profound tenderness and grace of Corelli shone through the two concerti grossi from Op. 6, the mournful No. 3 in C minor and the always-dancing No. 4 in D major. The latter opened with its most brilliant movement, a whir of fiddling that seemed to give a foretaste of The Four Seasons.
J.C. Bach, long stereotyped as the galant “English Bach” who lacked the profundity of his father Johann Sebastian or the genius of his pupil Mozart, emerged as a powerful personality in this performance of his Symphony in G minor, Op. 6, No. 6, his only known symphony in a minor key.
And not just any minor key, but G minor, the key of two great symphonies by Mozart. With its stark contrasts of mood, and its energetic outer movements separated by a veiled Andante, this piece came across as a highly expressive precursor to those later masterpieces.
The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday. tickets.handelandhaydn.org; 617-266-3605
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