Handel and Haydn Society opens season with eternally contemporary Bach

September 29, 2018 at 12:51 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

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Harry Christophers opened the Handel and Haydn Society’s season with an all-Bach program Friday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Lara Silberklang

Bach’s music has the unique ability to speak across the centuries. Heitor Villa-Lobos felt that Bach’s works were a universal force capable of reaching people in all walks of life. Indeed, when played well, even the composer’s most familiar scores can bring fresh and rewarding musical discoveries. In a sense, his music is eternally contemporary.

That was the experience Friday night at Symphony Hall, where the Handel and Haydn Society, led by Harry Christophers, opened the 2018-2019 season with a program dedicated to selections of Bach’s cantatas and concertos.

Many of the composer’s cantatas are journeys from spiritual affirmation to personal reflection. Opening fugal choruses project strong theological convictions. By works’ end, four-part chorales offer moments of solace and prayerful reverence.

Friday night’s main course was “Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen,” the fifth cantata from the Christmas Oratorio, which tells of the coming of Christ into the world. No conductor in Boston has quite the feel for this music as Christophers, and H&H’s resplendent performance showed just how rich and full of life Bach’s music can be. Leading with brisk, waving gestures, the conductor wove the lines of the opening chorus into a dense web of sound. The singers’ diction throughout was crisp and percussive.

As the Evangelist, tenor Aaron Sheehan was a soothing and affirming presence, his voice declaring the coming of Christ as a liberating spiritual force for the true believer. Soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad and tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson yearned for spiritual peace in “Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen,” the two singers, through silvery tone, asking God for deliverance from earthly troubles. Emily Marvosh, with her dark contralto, reassured the two souls in plush tones that Christ had already come. The other standout was baritone Woodrow Bynum, who sang a fervent “Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinnen,” his voice a mighty oak against Debra Nagy’s weeping oboe accompaniment.

Cantata 179, Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei, which followed, warns of Christian hypocrisy. Here, Sheehan’s singing captured the anger and dire warning of “Falscher Heuchler Ebenbild,” his voice ringing like a bell in his upper register. Smooth-toned soprano Sarah Yanovitch lofted “Liebster Gott, erbarme dich” like a personal prayer to be saved from divine judgment.

The H&H chorus sang the cantata’s choral movements with both live-wire intensity and sensitivity, taking care to bring out the darkness of Bach’s chromatic lines.

The Mass in G major, BWV 236, which filled out the program, is a little-known gem from Bach’s hand. The composer, who never wanted to waste a good melody, reused two themes from Cantata 179 in this mass, though slower tempos give the latter a greater sense of mystery. In the “Kyrie,” the warm and supple singing of the chorus resulted in a contemplative musical moment. The “Gloria” unfolded in bright harmonies, while Christophers’ quick tempo in the final chorus, “Cum Sancto Spiritu,” put an exclamation point on such a short but beautiful score.

Vocal soloists in the mass included baritone Peter Walker, who sang a rich and robust “Gratias agimus tibi,” Yanovitch and mezzo-soprano Clare McNamara,” whose voices combined for a golden blend in the “Domine Deus,” and Sheehan, who sang the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” with tenderness and grace.

In each work, H&H’s period-instrument orchestra provided drive and color. Debra Nagy and Meg Owens spun warm countermelodies on the oboes da caccia in Cantata 179. Organist Ian Watson, bassoonist Andrew Schwartz, and cellist Guy Fishman supplied continuo support throughout that was felt more than heard.

Two of Bach’s concertos, which featured the orchestra’s strings, offered additional dramatic moments.

The opening movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 was effervescent, the streams and eddies of Bach’s music rising, turning about in gentle arcs, and falling away. The second movement—actually a simple two-chord progression—featured concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky in a meandering but tasteful line. In the third movement, the ensemble found a sprightly character that would have been at home in one of Bach’s dance suites.

The highlight of the evening was the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043, which spotlighted Nosky and assistant concertmaster Susanna Ogata as soloists. Both players tossed off Bach’s trickling lines with abandon, and the first movement’s concentrated dialogue between soloists and orchestra never lost power or momentum. In the second movement, Ogata and Nosky complemented each other through a long, delightful duet. The orchestral strings wrapped both players in a warm blanket of sound.

The musicians dug in for a stormy and exciting finale, where Bach’s occasional dissonances, shaped with a slight edge of tone, added urgency to the reading. The energy of the performers sold each moment, and the darting phrases and muscular tuttis that close this concerto brought the audience to its feet. 

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Hall. handelandhaydn.org

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