Handel and Haydn’s salon program charmingly evokes early musical soiree

March 12, 2012 at 12:07 pm

By David Wright

"The Concert," 1961, by Richard Lack.

The Handel and Haydn Society gave a little musical soiree on Sunday afternoon in Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre for a few hundred of its closest friends.  Billed as “Classical Salon,” the concert presented eight musicians in various combinations, playing pieces and (replica) instruments that might have been heard at a musical gathering in a Boston home in the 1820s.

Handel, Schubert, Beethoven and Mozart were on the bill, of course, but so were immigrant American composers of the time such as Raynor Taylor, Benjamin Carr, and the “host” of this imaginary long-ago evening, the Boston double bassist and Handel and Haydn co-founder Gottfried Graupner.

Bassist Rob Nairn didn’t exactly channel Graupner, but he did welcome the audience, explain the program’s historical concept, and participate in many of the numbers.  When not performing, the musicians sat at the side of the stage awaiting their turn, or strolled offstage, lending a touch of informality to the proceedings.  A little more lighting parity between the bright stage and the dark house would have been welcome, to enhance the casual atmosphere and help listeners follow the printed program.

The concert’s opener, the aria with flute obbligato “Sweet Bird” from Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, overflowed with peeps and twitters, deliciously executed by soprano Amanda Forsythe, with Christopher Krueger matching her trill for trill on a mellow-toned yet surprisingly powerful wooden flute.

Forsythe traded coloratura for character study in Schubert’s song Gretchen am Spinnrade, reining in her sizable voice to match the whispery ripples of Ian Watson’s fortepiano, a replica by Paul McNulty that looked to be of an Anton Walter instrument circa 1800.

The English-born American Raynor Taylor was the exotic compositional bird of the program’s first half, represented by his Cello Sonata No. 6 in C major, a lively 1780 piece in three dance-like movements, in which the principal instrument is accompanied only by a double bass.  Cellist Guy Fishman and Nairn made the most of the work’s Baroque dance rhythms, skittering scales and jarring modulations.

Beethoven’s Ghost Trio in D major, Op. 70, No. 1 closed the first half.  Hearing this familiar music, and especially its ectoplasmic slow movement, on slender-toned period instruments had the audience leaning forward to catch the nuances of the convivial performance by Watson and Fishman with violinist Christina Day Martinson.  The cozy confines of Sanders Theatre never seemed so big before.

Novelties abounded in the concert’s second half, beginning with Graupner’s suitably pompous paean to the 11th governor of Massachusetts, Governor Brooks’ Grand March, featuring Krueger’s flute as a jaunty fife in the outer sections and a mellow-toned orator in the middle.  By contrast, the song Shakespeare’s Willow by another English-American, Benjamin Carr, drooped tenderly with the Scotch-snap rhythm of the repeated word willow, affectingly rendered in its various harmonic guises by Forsythe and Watson.

For Romanze per il Contraviolone by the Austrian composer Johann Matthias Sperger, bassist Nairn stepped to the front of the stage—“It’s not often,” he commented—with a five-stringed Viennese double bass that he said was the type of instrument favored by Haydn and Mozart.  The fifth string came in handy as, accompanied by a string quartet, Nairn played caramel-toned high solos far up the fingerboard, and clear off it.

Yet another English-American, Alexander Reinagle, composed four Philadelphia Sonatas for piano solo in about 1790.  As vigorously played by Ian Watson, the first movement of Reinagle’s Sonata No. 1 recalled Mozart in its abundance of attractive melodies and Haydn with its restless working of short phrases, and threw in plenty of brilliant scales and arpeggios.

The concert closed with Mozart’s Flute Quartet No. 1 in D major, K. 285, in which even Nairn, doubling the cello line on his bass, couldn’t prevent Krueger’s big-toned flute from sonically dominating the ensemble, especially in the first movement.  Not that one minded, with flute playing as elegant and spritzig as this.  In the later movements, Krueger scaled back his tone so that one could hear the strings’ serenade-style pizzicato in the Adagio and bustling interplay in the finale.

Speaking of dominating, one almost wishes the players had left Beethoven and Mozart in the drawer Sunday afternoon, for the sake of Taylor, Graupner, Reinagle, et al., who get so few hearings these days, and whose music fades before the masters like a candle at noon.

The next performance of the Handel and Haydn Society is Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at Symphony Hall, 7:30 p.m. March 30, and 3 p.m. April 1.  handelandhaydn.org.   617-266-3605.

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One Response to “Handel and Haydn’s salon program charmingly evokes early musical soiree”

  1. Posted Mar 13, 2012 at 2:18 pm by Will Wisdom

    I also very much enjoyed the performance (on Friday at Jordan Hall) and appreciate this thorough review.

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