“Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions to all musicians, appear and inspire”—so wrote W. H. Auden, in his “Hymn to St Cecilia,” by Benjamin Britten.
Although that anthem was not part of the splendid “When Britten Met Haydn” concert offered by Boston Cecilia on Friday evening, April 16, St Cecilia, Britten and Haydn must all have been smiling down as this brilliantly conceived and executed program unfolded so memorably.
Boston Cecilia and Donald Teeters are as venerable as it gets in Boston, but hardly rest on their laurels. So the challenge of this review is to express adequately just what a fine program this was. Teeters’s cogent, informed, and urbane program notes explained the connection between Haydn and Britten and addressed issues of sublimity. Such inexpressible things can be elusive, but these musicians unobtrusively, thoughtfully, and vividly allowed the music to speak for itself.
Teeters’ cogent, informed and urbane program notes explained the connection between Haydn and Britten and spoke about issues of sublimity. Such inexpressible things can be elusive, but In such an opulent evening, Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings was the standout. Tenor Aaron Sheehan, joined by BSO principal horn James Sommerville and an orchestra of some of Boston’s finest-free lance players, all under Teeters’s baton, delivered a performance of transcendent beauty in the gracious acoustic of All Saints’ Church, Brookline. To my ears, the spirit of Pears and Britten was palpable, and this glorious music could not have been more compelling. Sommerville’s secure handling of the valve-less horn demands of Britten’s score was perfection, highlighted by “hand-stopping,” a technique which creates other-worldly harmonics, a “muted” effect . The texture of this remarkable music was heart-stopping in the spacious intimacy of the church. Sheehan negotiated both the linear and acrobatic elements of the tenor line with complete confidence and penetrating artistry. Is this what heaven might be like?
Leading off the evening was Haydn’s brief and lovely “Little Organ Mass,” Missa brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo, in a clear and transparent reading. Although the chorus, orchestra and soloist sounded brilliant, no aggressive “points” were being made; it was all about the music. Barbara Bruns’s clear and subtle playing on the sweet positive organ spun a web through the orchestra and chorus, and Haydn’s music soared. Teresa Wakim’s soprano was luminous, and Teeters enabled everything to do just what it was meant to do.
After the break, Haydn’s Salve Regina was a pleasant discovery, as indeed Teeters’s notes indicated it had been when he unearthed it from the Cecilia archives. Although originally written for soloists only, here the conductor took the liberty of redistributing some of the material to the chorus, which worked beautifully. The program note said “Pace, Papa Haydn.” Indeed!
Britten’s Cantata Misericordium is a curious, penetrating piece informed by the composer’s pacifist leanings that extols the generous virtue of compassion — the real practice of it, not just the sentiment. A traveler in the desert is attacked and left to die, shunned by the priest and Levite, and saved only by the Good Samaritan. Williams brought stunning, even shocking power and depth to the role of the traveler, and Aaron Sheehan again got it exactly right with every phrase. Meanwhile, the Cecilia chorus, so sweet-voiced in the Haydn pieces, morphed into a crowd of angry power here and kind compassion there, always reflecting on the events at hand. This is demanding music, but at every moment the confidence of chorus, soloists and orchestra made this the “art that conceals art.”
How can a reviewer do justice to a program and performance this fine? Presiding over the entire occasion was the generous spirit, intelligence and musicianship of Donald Teeters, one of Boston’s musical treasures. Because of him the music carried the evening, as indeed it always should. In this age of shallow glamor and glitzy personalities, it is a life-changing privilege to experience an evening so focused and full of integrity. Headed to my car in the rain, I would happily have walked back and listened to it all over again.