Bach, Bononcini works make apt Lenten pairing for Handel and Haydn Society

April 3, 2023 at 11:24 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Rinaldo Alessandrini conducted the Handel and Haydn Sunday at Symphony Hall. Photo: Sam Brewer

One could hardly blame the Handel and Haydn Society for having, on Palm Sunday, skipped ahead to Good Friday and Easter. There is greater musical drama to be had on those days, as the afternoon’s pairing of Antonio Bononcini’s Stabat Mater and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Easter Oratorio with guest conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini at Symphony Hall reminded us.

Both pieces are, for the most part, admirably concise, especially Bononcini’s effort. Completed around 1710, the thirteen movements of the Stabat Mater unfold with impressive direction: only the central aria, “Eia Mater,” involves extended sequences of melismas that might be considered more decorative than dramatically imperative. Otherwise, Bononcini’s setting of this 13th-century poem aims to distill its expressive essence.

This means the music is engagingly varied. In the opening “Stabat Mater dolorosa,” for instance, a flowing instrumental depiction of weeping gives way to a plaintive, though richly blended, declamation of the text.

Later, a mournful duet between soprano and mezzo-soprano (“Quis est homo”) unfolds imitatively above a stately and sharply articulated solo cello ostinato. Most intriguing is the final chorus, which opens with an unsettled meditative section that suddenly cedes to a vigorous but edgily chromatic fugue with a text anticipating “the glory of paradise.”

Sunday’s rendition of this intriguing piece thrived on the score’s play of colors and textures. The H&H Chorus delivered their parts with thrilling blend, clean enunciations of text, and an admirable attention to dynamic shape. Authoritatively as they executed the final chorus, the choir’s finest moments came earlier in “Pro peccatis suae gentis”: its grippingly focused second half was sung with haunting intensity.

The afternoon’s soloists, too, were well-matched, especially soprano Silvia Frigato and tenor Ben Bliss, both of whose contributions were clarion and agile.

Singing almost constantly with her head in the score, mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus sometimes sounded uncomfortable with the music’s low tessitura. However, her phrasings were always stylish and her projection grew in security as the piece proceeded. Meanwhile, bass Gabriele Lombardi combined appealing tonal warmth and muscularity in his pair of arias.

Alessandrini presided over everything with a sure feel for the music’s overarching structure and dancing impetus. In his hands, the instrumental parts moved with purpose. What’s more, various gestures in Bononcini’s scoring–like the hammering patterns in the “Sancta Mater, istud agas” and the furious depictions of licking flames in “Fac me plagis vulnerari”–emerged viscerally.

A corresponding vigor marked the conductor’s approach to Bach’s Easter Oratorio. Completed in 1738, the Oratorio offers a meditation on the resurrection of Jesus from the vantage point of four of his followers: Mary and Mary Magdalene, plus the disciples Peter and John.

On Sunday, Alessandrini drew a resonant account of its exuberant Sinfonia from the H&H Orchestra, with a trio of Baroque trumpets highlighting the outer thirds and dulcet oboe lines soaring in its central Adagio. The framing choruses unfolded vigorously, as well, especially the opening “Kommt, eilet und laufet,” with its tripping contrapuntal entrances were full-bodied but ever limber.

In between, H&H principal flute (and recent Avery Fisher Career Grantee) Emi Ferguson and soprano Frigato made tender work of “Seele, deine Spezereien,” both spinning out their lines with silken purity. Debra Nagy’s oboe d’amore duet with mezzo-soprano Bonitatibus in “Saget, saget mir geschwinde” was likewise captivating.

Meanwhile, tenor Bliss delivered his “Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer” with alluring freshness and naivete. Here, too, Alessandrini was at his most refined, drawing playing of ethereal bounce and beauty from H&H’s recorders and muted strings.

The Handel and Haydn Society presents a program of spirituals and selections from Handel’s Chandos Anthems 7:30 p.m. June 1 at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

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