Christophers, H&H winter in Paris with vibrant Haydn program  

February 23, 2013 at 3:33 pm

By David Wright

Aisslinn Nosky performed Haydn’s Violin Concerto in G major Friday night with the Handel and Haydn Society at Symphony Hall. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

For its concert Friday night in Symphony Hall, the Handel and Haydn Society became the Haydn, Haydn, Haydn and Haydn Society—and left the audience wanting more.

Attendance at this program, titled “Haydn in Paris,” wasn’t what it’s been at other Handel and Haydn concerts featuring Vivaldi or Beethoven.  Perhaps that was because, for some people, even the lure of the glamorous French capital wasn’t enough to bring them out for a whole evening in the company of Joseph Haydn.

Too bad for them.  The modest-sized audience settled in its seats around 8 p.m., and one overture, one violin concerto, and two symphonies later, found itself cheering for the extraordinary vigor and imagination of this country boy from Esterháza.

And what was Parisian about this program?  Overtly, not much, except that the concluding symphony, No. 82 in C major, was one of six that Haydn composed in 1786 for an exceptionally large and skillful orchestra in that city.  Apparently, its finale theme reminded Parisians of a dancing bear at a carnival, so they nicknamed the symphony L’ours (“The Bear”)—an unpleasant image for today’s sensibilities, but at least Haydn himself had nothing to do with the name.

Subliminally, however, French taste ran through the entire program, if only because the French court was the trendsetter for aristocratic households all over the continent.  Thus, a trio of symphonies written by an Austrian composer for an Austrian prince announced its subjects (the times of day) in French: Le matin, Le midi and Le soir.

Friday’s program began, appropriately enough, with Haydn’s “morning” symphony, No. 6, Le matin.  With a composer who eventually wrote 104 symphonies, one might expect No. 6 to sound a bit old-fashioned or immature, but on the contrary, this ensemble’s colorful performance revealed a 29-year-old composer in full command of the orchestra and already on his lifelong quest for novel sounds and harmonies.

After disposing (quite prettily) of the obligatory “sunrise” crescendo to start the piece, the symphony moved on, not to bird song exactly, but to a peppy allegro led by Christopher Krueger’s mellow yet piquant wood flute—the first of many delights the agile flutist served up during the evening.

Here and throughout the program, conductor Harry Christophers observed all indicated repeats, including the development sections, not so much to vary the interpretation as to give the listener a second chance to sample the music’s torrent of fresh ideas.

Beginning the Adagio, Haydn topped his first-movement sunrise with another, more intriguing one—slow, cloudy, and expressive.  Then, over a steady walking accompaniment, concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky and principal cellist Guy Fishman played a wayward yet graceful duet, adding discreet ornaments to their triplet figures during the repeats.

The trend of featuring individual players—perhaps a goodwill gesture by the composer, then newly appointed as leader of the Esterzázy orchestra—continued in the Menuet, with Krueger and Nosky leading the outer sections and bassoonist Andrew Schwartz and string bassist Robert Nairn dancing together gruffly in the trio (talk about “bear” music).

The sonata-rondo finale was driven by its amusingly volatile main theme—evidently Stravinsky wasn’t the first composer to have sport with phrases of irregular length—which was varied a bit each time it returned, as Christophers made sure to point out.   Solo violin, cello, and flute figured in the episodes, often brilliantly, in Krueger’s glittering staccato and Nosky’s foretaste of the violin concerto to come.

Nosky led the performance of the Violin Concerto in G major herself while playing the solo part, trading the 19th-century “soloist vs. orchestra” model for an older “first among equals” approach.  She stood among her string colleagues, who (except the cellos) played standing up all evening.

Not that Nosky was lost in the black-clad pack.  For the occasion, the violinist was complimenting her lipstick-red hair with a tailcoat in turquoise satin with gold trim, modeled (she said in a program note) on Haydn’s own livery at Esterháza.  However, she seemed determined not to stand out too much sonically, discreetly contributing variations, trills, and staccato runs to the first movement’s themes.

Although roughly contemporary with the Symphony No. 6, the concerto sounded quite stiff, formal, and regular by comparison, through no fault of the able players (although a bit more soloistic attitude from Nosky might have brightened it up).  One was grateful for the few little surprises the composer tucked in the development section, and for the whimsical and expressive solo cadenza, reportedly composed or improvised (in true 18th-century fashion) by the soloist herself.

Nosky led an agreeably loose-limbed performance of the Adagio, whose symmetrical theme over repeated notes might otherwise have sounded quite square.  Again, Nosky used the simplest materials—scales and arpeggios—to fashion an expressive, period-appropriate cadenza.

Soloist and band showed off a bit in the Allegro finale, taking it at a tire-squealing presto and skidding around Haydn’s corners with aplomb.  It was wild, it was funny, and it was over in a flash, bringing delighted applause from the audience.

As late as the 1790s, Haydn’s symphonies were sometimes called “overtures,” because the genre had its origins in multi-movement curtain-raisers from the opera house.  Haydn’s Overture to L’isola dishabitata, composed in 1779, followed the old model, and so it was like having a third symphony, or at least a mini-symphony, on Friday’s program.

In the overture’s slow introduction, Christophers used the wispy orchestral materials to weave a taut, suspenseful atmosphere around the “deserted island” of the title, and then whipped up a storm with the sonata-form allegro, hitting a turbulent peak in the development section.  Relief came in an elegant yet soulful minuet, conducted with nice ebb and flow and featuring another fine flute solo from Krueger; the overture concluded with a return of the storm music.

Even allowing for differences in scoring and style, the performance of the overture seemed far more nuanced and illuminating than that of the concerto.  Which raises the question: Does even mid-18th-century music benefit from being performed with a conductor?  Haydn would have led the opera (and its overture) from the harpsichord, and the symphonies with his violin bow.  He would not, in performance at least, have stood facing the other players and gesticulated to get what he wanted.

And yet the results on Friday seemed to speak for themselves.  Perhaps the answer lies in the intimate, even automatic, familiarity of Haydn’s musicians with the idiom of their day.  Try as we may in our imagination, we are not living in 1779 anymore.

In any case, with Christophers once again at the helm, the Handel and Haydn players deftly negotiated the incredible variety of musical ideas Haydn threw into the first movement of the Symphony No. 82—by turns martial, waltzing, syncopated, flirtatious, menacing, and sharply dissonant.  The conductor kept the tempo flexible, driving ahead one second and backing off the next, the orchestra staying with him every step.

The Allegretto moved along like the fastest slow movement ever, with anticipations of Schumann in its upward-yearning phrases.  The expert Haydn of 1786 built non-squareness into the regular phrases by the subtle device of sometimes accenting the upbeat and sometimes not, an effect duly noted by Christophers.

Aware that Parisian tastes ran to the forceful and dramatic, Haydn gave them an imperial-style minuet in a stately 3-to-a-bar with timpani, delivered here with John Grimes assertive but not obtrusive on the drums.  At that time Paris was already becoming the center of the woodwind world, a fact acknowledged in the trio’s wind parts, elegantly rendered on Friday night.

The last movement was a classic Haydn one-theme finale, generated in its entirety by a little dance tune over a bagpipe-style drone note.  Christophers explored all the tune’s adventures with relish, and made the drone a major player, bringing it forward from a whisper at the outset to a strong hum in the development to an organ-like roar in the closing bars.  One imagines the Parisians in 1786 were as bowled over by this wall of sound as the Bostonians were on Friday night.

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

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