in: Reviews

May 8, 2009

Brilliant Close to Season by Boston Baroque with Michael Haydn Mass, Other Works

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Conductor Martin Pearlman and concertmaster Daniel Stepner brought Boston Baroque’s 35th anniversary season to a brilliant close in Jordan Hall this weekend with performances May 1st and 2nd of works by Mozart and the two Haydns.

Like his older and more illustrious brother, Michael Haydn was trained in the choir school of St. Stephen’s, Vienna, but spent the better part of his career in Salzburg, entering the service of the prince archbishop in 1763 and remaining there until his death in 1806. His Requiem Mass was composed in December, 1771 on the death of Archbishop Sigismund, Count of Schrattenbach. Several of its salient features are echoed in the Requiem that Mozart (who must have heard Haydn’s mass in Salzburg) composed some 20 years later and famously left unfinished. Although it has a narrower expressive range and less contrast between sections than Mozart’s, Michael Haydn’s Requiem is a beautiful and important work in its own right.

The opening “Requiem aeternam” – like Mozart’s – features successive entries in the chorus over a walking bass; the “Kyrie” continues in a similar style. The 19 stanzas of the “Dies irae” sequence are assigned alternately to the chorus and the four soloists, concluding with an elaborate choral “Amen.” The offertory, “Domine Jesu Christe,” opens with a ringing tenor solo, with more reminders of Mozart in the stern concluding fugue on “Quam olim Abrahae.” The three invocations of the “Agnus Dei” are sung by the soprano, tenor, and bass soloists, with moving choruses on “Dona eis requiem.” Soprano Hyunah Yu, mezzo Ann McMahon Quintero, tenor Kerem Kurk and bass-baritone Kevin Deas, whether solo or in perfectly-matched ensemble, sang with focused tone and stylistic sensitivity. Pearlman’s skillful direction was rewarded by crisp articulation and flexible dynamics from the 21-voice choir and the orchestra of top-notch players on period strings.

The Requiem calls for four trumpets and three trombones – the latter were prominent in opera and church music long before they entered the symphony orchestra – but no violas or winds. Penetrating yet never overpowering, and skillfully underscored by the adroit playing of James Grimes on the classical timpani, the period brasses supported the voices in choral sections and provided somber punctuation and intimations of a world beyond. Michael Haydn’s sacred works, including his concerted masses for chorus, orchestra, and solo ensemble, are still regularly performed during Sunday services at churches in Salzburg and Vienna, but rarely heard in this country. We can be grateful to Boston Baroque for bringing us this beautiful and interesting work.

The second half of the program included two concert arias by Mozart, one composed in 1778 during a trip to Mannheim, the other in 1791, the last year of his life. As was usual for Mozart, each aria was composed with the qualities of a particular singer in mind. Basta, vincesti . . . . Ah non lasciarmi, a scene from the librettist Metastasio’s Didone abbandonata, set by numerous composers both before and after Mozart, was composed for the court soprano Dorothea Wendling. Three years later she sang the role of Ilia, also created for her, in the Munich premiere of Idomeneo. Wendling was renowned as one of the most expressive singers of her day, and one can say the same of soprano Hyunah Yu, who convincingly depicted Dido’s despair and resignation at the departure of Aeneas in Mozart’s dramatic accompanied recitative and restrained aria, with its echoes of Gluck.

Per questa bella mano was composed in March 1791 for the bass singer and theater composer Franz Xaver Gerl, who created the role of Sarastro in The Magic Flute the following September. In  December he was one of three singers who joined the dying Mozart in a bedside reading of his Requiem. Mozart composed an equally virtuosic obbligato part for another friend, the double bass player Friedrich Pischelberger, who was to play in the orchestra of The Magic Flute. Boston Baroque’s principal bassist, Deborah Dunham, playing a five-stringed bass tuned according to the older system common in Mozart’s Vienna, matched bass singer Kevin Deas in agility and tonal beauty. Both commanded a wide expressive and dynamic range from Sarastro-like bass tones to idiomatic ornaments in the baritone register – a truly virtuosic duo.

The evening concluded with Joseph Haydn’s Symphony no. 102 in Bb major, one of the 12 symphonies composed during his triumphal appearances in London in the 1790s. It opens with a solemn Largo colored by hints of minor, then bursts into Allegro vivace in cut time. Contrapuntal explorations in the extended development touch on remote minor keys only to bring on a “false” recapitulation in C major before settling back into the home key. The highly expressive second movement, Adagio, is also full of surprises, not the least of which is the addition ­- unprecedented in a classical slow movement – of muted trumpets and drums in the repetition of the exposition. In the third movement, more peasant dance than courtly minuet, Pearlman made the most of displaced accents and rhythmic displacements that constantly jolted the listener’s expectations. The orchestra danced its way nimbly though the Presto Finale to a triumphant conclusion.

No longer regarded as quaint curiosities, period instruments are here to stay. In the hands of skillful players and conductors, their focused tuning, precise attack, and agility can peal away layers of post-romantic performing traditions to reveal the wit and subtlety of music that we too often take for granted. Count Boston Baroque as yet another jewel of Boston’s musical scene.

Virginia Newes lives in Cambridge, and was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

Ed: This review, sent in a very timely fashion on May 4, was edited and posted immediately from Govone, Italy, but was evidently lost in cyberspace. Our apologies to the reviewer and the presenter.

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