Christophers, H&H, and soprano soar in a concert fit for a king

April 28, 2012 at 1:18 pm

By David Wright

Harry Christophers led the Handel and Haydn Society Friday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

There wasn’t much room in the royal box at Symphony Hall Friday night, as Harry Christophers led the Handel and Haydn Society orchestra, chorus, and guest vocal soloists in music for two kings, two queens, and a prince-archbishop.

The five works by, yes, Handel and Haydn, and also Mozart, were not especially grand or imperious in character (with one magnificent exception), but the Society’s zesty and energetic performances of them were fit for a king.

The program took its overall title from the evening’s closing work, Mozart’s Mass in C major, K. 317, nicknamed “Coronation” not by Mozart nor even during his lifetime, but apparently by an anonymous nineteenth-century admirer who thought the music sounded regal.

The fact that the Coronation Mass never actually graced a royal occasion was more than compensated for by pairing it on Friday’s second half with Handel’s Coronation Anthem No. 1, Zadok the Priest, which was such a hit at the coronation of King George II in 1727 that it has accompanied the crowning of every English monarch since.  As Friday’s performance amply demonstrated, this is the kind of music that gave the word “awesome” its original meaning.

A more legendary royal occasion inspired the first piece on Friday’s program, the sinfonia from Act III of Handel’s oratorio Solomon, which has come to be known as The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.  The charming bustle of this music seems to depict not so much royal pomp as busy preparations for an important visitor.  Under Christophers’ direction, the strings vividly evoked this domestic scene, and the two oboes (after taking a few bars to find their ensemble footing) engaged in pert dialogue from the sidelines.

Teresa Wakim. Photo: Teddie Hwang

Mozart’s solo motet Exsultate, jubilate, K. 165 has no royal associations at all, but at Friday’s concert it made excellent use of the soprano soloist engaged for the Mass.  Soprano Teresa Wakim, substituting on about nine days’ notice for guest soloist Rosemary Joshua, was making a debut of sorts, as a longtime member of the Handel and Haydn chorus stepping in front of the band in Symphony Hall for the first time.

Wakim began tentatively, her low notes sounding swallowed and the top ones slipping out of control, but she righted herself in (of all places) the work’s most exposed passage, the first movement’s unaccompanied solo cadenza, and sang the rest of the piece in a voice that sounded clear, smooth, and pleasing in timbre, if somewhat lightly supported.  She managed well in rapid passages, and projected the text with admirable phrasing and diction.

Next up was music fit for a queen, Haydn’s Symphony No. 85 in B-flat major, La Reine, so titled (by a canny publisher) because it was Marie Antoinette’s favorite among the symphonies Haydn composed for Paris in the mid-1780s.  Either the queen had excellent taste in music or she was just pleased to hear a familiar French folk tune in the variations movement; it hardly matters, since a Haydn symphony offers delights for listeners at every level.

After a slightly hesitant start in the symphony’s slow introduction, Christophers and his players showed a keen awareness of Haydn’s fertile imagination, especially in the first movement’s development, which swelled to a surprisingly lush orchestral sound, then dwindled to a mere thread.  One was glad to hear this music a second time, as Christophers observed the custom, already old-fashioned by 1785, of repeating not just the exposition but the development and recapitulation as well.

The delights of the Romance, a variations movement, were too numerous to describe here, beginning with the statement of the folk tune in glowing low strings and going on to star turns for the winds, especially Christopher Krueger’s velvety wood flute and Andrew Schwartz’s slithery bassoon.

Winds also created the symphony’s most magical moment, in which a mere lead-in to the Menuetto’s trio theme was transformed by Haydn’s genius, and the H&H wind players entering one by one, into a contrapuntal curlicue of sudden, breathtaking beauty.

As led by Christophers, the finale’s prevailing dynamic was piano and the prevailing tempo was fast, fast, fast.  No repeats, just an edge-of-the-seat listening experience, Haydn’s inspired details flickering by like lightning, and the whole thing over in a jiffy.

After the intermission, Zadok the Priest re-engaged listeners with a superbly suspenseful, throbbing orchestral introduction leading to the chorus’s explosive entrance—demonstrating that, with the right build-up, a chorus of 40 can sound like 400.  The H&H singers mustered not only a big sound, but the agility to spin out the work’s exuberant runs of sixteenth-notes.

Mozart was proud enough of his Mass, composed in 1779 for Easter Sunday at the court of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, to have a copy of it sent to him later in Vienna, where its symphonic and operatic qualities were likely to be appreciated.  As rendered by Christophers and his substantial forces (including trumpets and drums), the Mass was indeed a brilliant, extroverted piece, pausing only briefly, for example, to meditate on Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion during the otherwise lively and affirmative Credo.

Much is known about period instruments, and next to nothing about “period” singing.  But if there is such a thing, Friday’s solo quartet in the mass achieved it, matching their sound to each other and to the slim, clear orchestral sonority behind them.  Their vocal placement had a “natural” feel to it, especially that of tenor Thomas Cooley, whose voice was almost conversational in tone.  Mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy and baritone Sumner Thompson provided strong support in the ensemble’s middle and low range, with the quartet’s phrasing in the Benedictus especially fine

Soprano Wakim, who had sung admirably in the earlier motet and the Mass’s ensembles, was simply ravishing in the solo of the concluding Agnus Dei, drawing listeners into her exquisite pianissimos and turns of phrase, her pure tone sparingly touched with expressive vibrato.  The audience rewarded this chorus-girl-turned-star with a warm ovation when she returned for her bow.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday.   handelandhaydn.org.  617-266-3605.

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