On October 9th, The Handel and Haydn Society inaugurated its 195th season with the Boston debuts of two outstanding artists in the area of period performance: violinist and conductor Jean-Christophe Spinosi, who took the podium, and countertenor Andreas Scholl, who joined for most of the evening. It was a program that also demonstrated the stylistic differences between two towering composers of the Baroque period: Antonio Vivaldi and George Frideric Handel.
Handel was a renowned composer of vocal music, able to dash off finely crafted, attractive melodies at the drop of a powdered wig. It was a gift that served him well as the premiere composer of Italian opera in early-18th-century England. Even so, the point of most of the arias from that period was not to demonstrate compositional skill, but rather to serve as a vehicle for the vocalist to show off dazzling technique and improvisatory imagination. In the two arias by Handel that were featured on the program, Scholl was able to recreate that aesthetic with a clear, flexible tone, convincing musicality, and a clever sense of ornamentation, especially noticeable in the da capo of “Se parla nel mio cor” from the opera Giustino. Spinosi and the H&H Society Orchestra supported Scholl’s interpretations with energetic yet properly Neapolitan grace.
Vivaldi, on the other hand, was no great tunesmith. His music lives through motivic gestures energized by compelling rhythmic momentum and a highly coloristic sense of instrumentation. From the first downbeat of the evening, which started off the composer’s three-part overture to La fida ninfa, it was clear that Spinosi and the orchestra were going to be making the most of those characteristics, especially the colors. The storminess of the opening section was captured with an almost palpable electric buzz from the low strings, and the entire work was driven with controlled yet dramatically emotive dynamic extremes. Even more impressive was their performance of the B-minor Sinfonia “Al santo Sepolcro”, in which the group captured the mysterious murkiness in the long, dissonant tones that open the work, as well as the eerie beauty that emerges from those catacombed sonorities. In this piece, even the ensemble’s miserly approach to vibrato in the high strings—a characteristic that was somewhat annoying in livelier works—proved to be particularly effective.
Scholl, too, had to contend with the fact that Vivaldi’s music is not about beautiful tunes; and in this case, the glassy sonority of his voice sometimes got in the way. Interpretively, he was remarkable: his recitatives were direct and conversational, and his arias were excitingly emotive, both approaches being particularly effective in the emotionally fraught Cessate, omai cessate. The problem was that the more he tried to vary his vocal color for dramatic effect, the less his voice actually projected, resulting in him often being buried in the textures. This was particularly noticeable in places where Spinosi’s energetic conducting drove the ensemble to the fore in order to highlight Vivaldi’s instrumental word-painting. In all fairness to both singer and conductor, however, Symphony Hall is much too large a space for this kind of music; although Baroque opera houses were, by many accounts, also huge and acoustically challenging, that particular aspect of period-faithfulness seems an undesirable one to revisit.
The truly stunning moments of the evening were those in which Vivaldi’s orchestral hues called for Spinosi to pull the ensemble back, allowing Scholl to project without force. It also seems that this particular vocalist’s tone and temperament are uniquely suited to dark, aching melancholy. In the central aria of Filiae maestae Jerusalem, the composer paints the hushed winds and frozen fields with a near-silence that is cold and hollow, a texture over which Scholl was able to sing out with mesmerizingly desolate expression. In fact, the work that was arguably the weakest on the program in terms of compositional sophistication ended up being the most effective in terms of musical performance: Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, a drawn out, repetitive lament, was treated by both singer and conductor with such rich, expressive somberness, that it resulted in one of those rare and wonderful occasions where the performance raised the level of the music beyond its own intrinsic quality. Though the work ended the program on a topically sad note, the artistry of the musicians on stage was at its best, leaving the listener in that oddly positive mood that often comes from having heard unhappiness expressed so beautifully.