Handel and Haydn Society opens season with graceful and majestic Bach

October 8, 2022 at 11:27 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Jonathan Cohen conducted the Handel and Haydn Society’s season-opening concert Friday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Marco Borggreve

While the liturgical calendar is winding its way through the later weeks of Ordinary Time, the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra and Chorus peeked ahead a couple months to Advent on Friday night at Symphony Hall. 

Led from the harpsichord by Jonathan Cohen, the ensemble’s season-opening program, “The Glories of Bach,” showcased three holiday-themed cantatas by the iconic Johann Sebastian, plus his Orchestral Suite No. 3 and Dietrich Buxtehude’s “Der Herr ist mit mir.”

As the night’s only purely-instrumental offering, the Suite unfolded with a welcome degree of dancing energy, even if some of its valveless trumpet interjections proved haphazard. Regardless, the Orchestra’s command of the music was total: the Overture was both majestic and well-directed, the Gavottes swaggered gracefully, and the Bourée’s dynamic contrasts charmed the ear. The concluding Gigue featured more of the latter plus a bass line that tripped winningly, while Cohen’s discreet harpsichord improvisations stood out as an unexpected highlight of the second-movement Air.

In all the choral selections, the night’s vocalists sounded like they were already in mid-season form. The choir’s tone in the Overture of “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (BWV 61) was a model of purity and flawless blending, while the contrapuntal textures in that cantata’s short final chorus never lacked for clarity or agility.

There, too, soprano Lauren Snouffer’s supple reading of “Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herze,” with its tasteful embellishments on the reprise, was smartly done. So was bass-baritone Michael Sumuel’s big-voiced but gentle-toned account of the recitative, “Siehe, ich stehe vor der Tür.”

In “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (BWV 140), the iterations of the chorale tune during the marching opening section were articulated with the utmost purpose and resonance. As a result, that movement’s structure was brilliantly elucidated. So was the fourth movement (“Zion hört”), its text intoned with magnificent warmth and diction by the H&H Chorus’s tenor section.

Here, Snouffer and Sumuel proved well-matched in their aria duets, particularly “Mein Freund ist mein.” Christina Day Martinson’s piccolo violin solos in “Wenn kommst du, mein Heil?” were aptly vigorous.

Meanwhile, Cohen drew conspicuously potent playing and singing from his forces in Bach’s only Latin cantata, “Gloria in excelsis deo” (BWV 191). Sharing music that’s also used in the “Gloria” section of the B-minor Mass, the smaller work is at once familiar and affecting.

On Friday, thanks to a careful shaping of the music’s textures and dynamics, its fugue on the text “and on earth peace, good will towards men” took on a pleading quality that was as fervent as it was timeless. The central duet, sung with gleaming tone by Snouffer and tenor Andrew Haji, was liltingly accompanied by flautists Andrea LeBlanc and David Ross.

Given this company, the Buxtehude might have seemed out of place. However, Bach held the older composer in the highest regard and, besides, “Der Herr ist mit mir” offers moments of real charm.

Granted, such moments are few over the work’s first two-thirds, which obsessively reiterate its reminder that “the Lord is with me.” Once that fact has been established though, the concluding “Alleluia” sequence—which Cohen described to the audience as being “jolly”—turned out to be downright rollicking. The men of the Chorus, especially, made the most of that episode’s busy melismatic writing while the work’s larger call-and-response structure (primarily between voices and instruments) came across mightily.

For an encore, the H&H ensembles offered something quieter: a flowing and decidedly unsentimental reading of “Jesu bleibet meine Freude.”

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

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