Cohen impresses with quiet, charismatic leadership in H&H holiday program

December 16, 2022 at 12:07 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Jonathan Cohen conducted the Handel and Haydn Society Thursday night at Jordan Hall. Photo: Sam Brewer

Christmas came to Jordan Hall Thursday night, courtesy of the Handel and Haydn Society’s Yuletide program. Though just two of the concert’s six offerings were explicitly seasonal, the larger spirit of the evening’s performances—led by Jonathan Cohen in his first appearance since being named H&H artistic director-designate—fit with the month’s celebratory mood.

That was certainly true of the night’s opener, Johann Vierdanck’s short “Ich verkündige euch große Freude.” Thursday’s account showcased the H&H Youth Choruses Concert Choir. Conducted by Dr. Jennifer Kane, the ensemble acquitted itself smartly, singing with sweet, clean tone and impressive textual fluency. Even though “Ich verkündige euch” isn’t the most contrapuntally robust of selections, the music’s canonic textures all danced amiably.

For true musical athleticism, one needed to wait a spell for soprano Robin Johannsen, who was the featured soloist in a pair of works by George Frideric Handel plus J. S. Bach’s Cantata No. 51 “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen.” By just about any measure, Johannsen is an exceptional singer: for warmth and beauty of tone, evenness of projection, clarity of articulation, and lightness of touch, she leaves little to be desired.

In Handel’s Silete venti she drew impressively on all those qualities, particularly in the closing pair of arias with their energetic and sometimes stormy melismas. But Johannsen’s singing wasn’t just about showing off. She shaped the end of the opening recitative with enchanting clarity and engaged in a series of lilting exchanges with the orchestra in the first aria, “Dulcis amor.”

The instrumental group played with real purpose and direction. Rhythms in the Sinfonia snapped and its fugal passagework bristled vigorously. Meantime, the music’s episodes of text painting—the accompaniment to the lyric’s command for the winds to be silent, say, or the pastoral scene described in the second aria—were subtly shaped.

Similar qualities emerged in the orchestra part of the same composer’s Gloria. Here, the dark turns in the “Et in terra pax” and “Qui tollis peccata mundi” glowed. So did the color shift in the “Domine Deus,” which showcased Brandon Acker’s theorbo in the continuo section.

Johannsen’s illumination of its text was likewise bracing. Hers was a radiant, florid account, notable for its rhythmic precision and, especially in the concluding “Quoniam tu solus sanctus,” deft transitions into trills.

Though the vocal line in Bach’s “Jauchzet Gott” is challenging, it’s less overtly showy than in either of the Handelian numbers. Even so, Johannsen executed its demanding outer movements with aplomb. In between came a soaring, pleading “Höchster, mache deine Güte.”

In the framing arias, Johannsen shared the solo spotlight with H&H principal trumpet Steven Marquardt. His navigation of the cantata’s treacherous solos was nothing short of superb, both in character and accuracy of pitch. Cohen’s accompaniments, too, were driven and well-shaped. Of note were the solo string contributions in the “Chorale,” all of which danced nimbly.

Much the same can be said for the night’s pair of purely instrumental pieces, Jan Zelenka’s Sinfonia Concertante a 8 and Handel’s F-major Concerto Grosso (Op. 3, no. 4).

Zelenka’s score is a substantial work dating from the 1720s. Cohen led a rhythmically taut reading, especially in the expansive Simphonia, with its dramatic pauses and gambolling energy. While some of the solos were tentative and intonation periodically suspect, the ensemble’s grasp of the music’s overriding style was always persuasive—especially the soaring cello-bassoon duets in the “Aria da Capriccio” and the graceful, closing sequence of Menuets.

The same held true for the Handel Concerto Grosso, the first movement of which was pert and well-balanced. Debra Nagy’s second-movement oboe solos beautifully echoed the larger ensemble’s inward figurations while the woodwinds sang plangently in the brisk Allegro. At the same time, the concluding Minuetto brimmed with refined, stately elegance, especially during its dialogues between solo strings and winds.

Presiding over it all from the harpsichord was Cohen, who, throughout, the night was the picture of quiet charisma. Surely it says something that he seemed thoroughly integrated into the ensemble, as much a member as a leader. Also, that the orchestral playing overflowed with vitality. 

Heading into the new year, at least one thing seems certain: with Cohen at the helm, H&H’s future looks awfully bright.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at Jordan Hall.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Cohen impresses with quiet, charismatic leadership in H&H holiday program”

  1. Posted Dec 17, 2022 at 10:19 am by Debbie First

    Your glorious review made my heart sing!

    As a 209-year-old, H+H makes Baroque music forever young!

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