Handel and Haydn opens with brisk yet buoyant Bach

October 13, 2012 at 3:16 pm

By David Wright

Harry Christophers led the Handel and Haydn Society in an all-Bach program Friday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

If you had a train to catch on Friday night, the Handel and Haydn Society’s season-opening concert of music by J.S. Bach at Symphony Hall was the place to be.

Artistic director Harry Christophers conducted the soloists, chorus, and period-instrument orchestra at such rapid tempos that whole movements seemed to flicker by in a moment.  Even the featured Magnificat, Bach’s multi-movement setting of the Virgin Mary’s hymn of praise to God, seemed more of a quick thank-you card than a proper letter.

What kept it all from becoming a featureless blur was taut and shapely playing by the orchestra, led by its charismatic concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky; attention to Bach’s endless variety of instrumental color; a deep lineup of capable solo singers; and, most of all, a virtuoso performance by the 30-member Handel and Haydn Society Chorus.

From the concert’s first notes—the opening of the Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, resplendent with trumpets and drums—one knew something was up.  This performance sounded less like the heavens opening than a pair of French doors opening onto a terrace where lords and ladies were dancing.  The snapping dotted rhythms of the French overture stepped lightly, and the ensuing allegro was a whirring perpetual-motion machine for violins.

Christophers didn’t linger over the famous Air either, but if rapt stillness was not his goal, clearly-layered counterpoint and phrases-within-phrases were, and these gave depth to his brisk performance.  In contrast, the suite’s three closing dances sounded somewhat tossed off—expertly and elegantly tossed, but tossed nonetheless.

The 22-year-old Bach served less than a year as a church organist in Mühlhausen, but during that time he composed Cantata 71, Gott ist mein König, to celebrate a civic occasion, the election of the town’s governing council.  Trumpets and drums add their festive touch here too, but the work opens with a coup for the chorus, a forte C major chord with no instrumental introduction, which the Handel and Haydn Society Chorus delivered on Friday night perfectly tuned and without audible preparation, a sign of choral wonders to come.

The cantata’s vocal solos were parceled out to six singers, all of whom gave focused, well-characterized performances; highlights included tenor Marcio de Oliveira’s old-man turn in “Ich bin nun achtzig Jahr” and bass Donald Wilkinson’s resonant low F on the word “Nacht” in “Tag und Nacht ist dein.”

Since her striking Handel-and-Haydn debut in Mozart’s Coronation Mass last spring, soprano Teresa Wakim’s standing with this organization has advanced to the point where she has her own separate funding source, anonymously credited in the program book.

She has her own separate voice too, a hall-filling instrument with the rounded, pure sound of a flute stop on an organ, that sometimes makes it seem like her fellow soloists are conversing with the front rows.  On Friday, Wakim’s brief solo contributions to the cantata and Magnificat were shapely and expressive; in ensembles, she tried to throttle back and blend in, with mixed success.

In the cantata, the Society’s chorus proved to be a smooth-handling sports car indeed, capable of lucid, incisive fugal singing in “Dein Alter sei wie deine Jugend,” then going all round and soft as they cooed through the “turtledove” chorus, “Du wollest dem Feinde nicht geben.”  Each section sang with unified timbre, minimal vibrato, and finely-calibrated phrasing, and the interplay of these well-tuned instruments brought Bach’s counterpoint vividly to life.

The cantata closed with all forces joining in a mini-suite of dances, with Christophers and the musicians deftly shifting gears through many changes of tempo and meter.

The concert’s second half opened with a triptych of colorful cantata movements, performed without breaks for applause.  The opening Sinfonia of Cantata 18, Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee, is a skulking waltz for four violas, two recorders, and basso continuo, humorously rendered in the spirit of the cantata’s rustic text.  The accompanied chorus Jesus bleibet meine Freude from Cantata 147 is familiar to many as the organ or piano piece Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring; in this performance, the choral phrases floated on melodious waves in the strings, accented by subtle trumpet highlights.  Trumpeter Paul Perfetti then took the chorale melody himself in the Sinfonia from Cantata 75, Die Elenden sollen essen, coaxing a golden sound from his valveless instrument as running strings surged and ebbed underneath him.

It was back to three trumpets for the opening choral movement of Magnificat, and the three players gave a lively account of their taxingly high “clarino” parts, while achieving a better blend with the orchestra than they had in Cantata 71.  The choir sounded as crystalline, lively and agile as before, and later topped itself with amazingly clear running sixteenth notes as Christophers put the accelerator down for the chorus “Fecit potentiam.”  Tenor Stefan Reed immediately matched that feat, tearing through the runs of his aria “Deposuit potentes.”

To be fair, there was more to this Magnificat than a 400-meter relay.  The interaction of vocal soloists with the various obbligato instruments was always a pleasure, especially Wakim’s with Stephen Hammer’s oboe in “Quia respexit.”  Alto Emily Marvosh, who had sounded a little tight in the cantata, relaxed into an almost flirtatious rendering of “Esurientes implevit,” accompanied by leering recorders (really).

In “Omnes generationes,” the chorus showed how a modest-sized, four-part ensemble can evoke multitudes in time and space.  And for the women’s chorus “Sicut locutus est,” the sopranos and altos produced the purest, most transparent blend of female voices this side of Anonymous 4.

Still, the speedy Mr. Christophers had everyone back on the sidewalk well before the clock struck ten.  One wouldn’t have minded spending some of those extra minutes contemplating the beauty of Bach instead of waiting for the train.

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

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