in: Reviews

May 3, 2010

H & H Orchestra, Chorus Shone, Soloists Less So in Balanced Bach Program

by

In his final concert of his inaugural season as Artistic Director of the Handel and Haydn Society on April 30 in Symphony Hall, the English conductor Harry Christophers chose J. S. Bach as his sole composer. The program, called Bach Portrait, was a well balanced one, with two motets starting the two halves and two cantatas closing them. Two instrumental pieces were in their midst.

First off was the motet “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” for double chorus based on Psalms 149 and 150. (Mozart noted this motet when he visited Leipzig late in his life.) The motets are Bach’s most difficult choral works, and the chorus pulled it off splendidly, with discreet instrumental accompaniment. Then followed the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, with John Finney distinguishing himself on the harpsichord. Violinist Daniel Stepner was his usual excellent self. This concerto is an instrumentally sparse one, which worked against Symphony Hall’s size. For instance, one had a hard time making out Christopher Krueger’s flute line, although Alan Winkler’s German harpsichord sounded fine. (A friend reminded me that this was due to the prevalence of the recording industry’s demands to make the instruments balanced. Do most people hear these concertos recorded?) Still, by the end of the concert, I wish I could have heard it in Jordan Hall.

The first half concluded with the one-movement cantata “Nun ist das Heil and die Kraft,” in which the chorus had a further chance to shine.

Then we heard “Der Geist hilf unser Schwachheit auf,” a motet written for a funeral of the rector of the Thomasschule. Like the earlier one, this is scored for double chorus, with strings and winds used in ingenious ways. There is a Lutheran chorale in the end, preceding two fine Hallelujah iterations. This is one of the most difficult motets to pull off, and all involved excelled themselves.

The Concerto in D minor for Two Violins featured Dan Stepner and Linda Quan guiding the orchestra by their violin bows. This most popular piece was extremely well played. It was, as the English like to say, gob-smackingly good. Bach composed this piece at Cöthen for two impressive violinists, and it’s been popular ever since. As the program notes explained, it was heard at the Collegium Musicum concerts in Leipzig.

The finale was another cantata, the 29th, “Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir,” which was written, like “Der Geist,” for an important occasion. It begins with a sinfonia featuring a virtuosic organ obbligato punctuated by brass, undoubtedly played by Bach himself. Finney further distinguished himself as organist.  Then the title chorus is heard, based on Psalm 75 and echoed by the end of B Minor Mass, which applies a different text, the “Dona nobis Pacem.”

The soloists, tenor Ryan Turner, bass Bradford Gliem, soprano Lydia Brotherton, and alto Thea Lobo, sang separate arias and recitatives in the traditional cantata way, with the notable exception of the alto, who has both a recitative (with a choral Amen!) and a Hallelujah aria, in which the organ makes a striking re-appearance.

That said, it pains me to say that the soloists, all drawn from the chorus, were the weakest part of the program. Perhaps that is also due to the venue. Still, the audience gave the concert a standing ovation.

Musically speaking, the Handel and Haydn Society would do well to have more of its concerts in Jordan Hall or similarly sized venues. That would afford the opportunity to have more concerts or more repeat performances. Next season, 12 performances are schedule to be held in Symphony Hall, with six performances each in Jordan Hall, Back Bay’s Saint Cecilia Church and Harvard’s Sanders Theatre and Memorial Church.

Larry Phillips studied music at Harvard, the Montreal Conservatory, and at New England Conservatory. In 1974 he was a prizewinner at the International Harpsichord Competition in Bruges, Belgium.

2 Comments

  1. We attended the same performance, and were pleased that we picked our seats to be in the 2nd row from the stage. We wondered if the audience in the balcony sections could hear much (if any) of the flute!

    Regarding the soloists in the last piece, we thought both soprano Lydia Brotherton and bass Bradford Gleim were fantastic.

    Comment by YuenK — May 4, 2010 at 12:13 pm

  2. I wholeheartedly agree that H & H needs to consider an alternate venue, and Jordan Hall is a fine suggestion. H & H does not produce the sound needed to fill symphony hall. I sat towards the back of the orchestra, and the only pieces I could hear were the large choruses, and even those sounded quite delicate.

    I am not sure if this is part of a larger trend, but it seems to me that H & H is tending towards an even more delicate, “authentic” sound, which I find irritating, especially in symphony hall. Too often H & H and many other early music ensembles are content to use “authenticity” and “good taste” as a substitute for creativity. The Brandenburg 5 on this concert was one of the most scholastic, straightforward, outright boring readings I have ever heard of this piece, which is completely inappropriate for such a wild and bizarre work.

    Comment by Joe Turbessi — June 22, 2010 at 12:13 am

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