Playing the most recognizable work by a composer who “wrote the same concerto five hundred times,” the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra demonstrated the sheer power of an individual. A stark line between Artistic Director Harry Christophers’ gripping yet balanced conducting and soloist Aisslinn Nosky’s inflammatory direction was drawn at intermission at Symphony Hall on Friday night.
Christophers was a galvanizing force from the outset, opening the evening with a stirring tempo and sultry textures for Handel’s Overture to Agrippina. After a slightly top-heavy mix and finger-tied oboe soloist in the overture’s second part, Christophers eased the orchestra into Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in C Minor, Op. 6 No. 3, with gracefulness during the forlorn slow movements and subtle but telling momentum in the fast sections. Christophers showed off a knack for letting these works tug at the heart without turning sentimental, and cut loose without collapsing into excess.
As always the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra’s precision dynamics and crisp, transparent sound were also on display, and best illustrated in Johann Christian Bach’s Symphony in G Minor, Op. 6 No. 6. Highlights included the dramatic, well-balanced crescendos of the first movement (powerful enough to earn applause before the rest of the symphony continued), the villainous bass trills and swooping violins of the second movement and the storm-tossed horns of the final Allegro Molto. Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in D Major, Op. 6 No. 4 closed the first half with sculpted serenity and a mischievous dialog between the two violins.
Concertmaster Aisslin Nosky’s fiery approach peeked out from solos in the Corelli concertos, yet after a spirited but somewhat dutiful reading of Handel’s Overture to Rodrigo (an opener before the main event), Nosky took the stage in the second half of the evening as featured soloist as well as driving force in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Christophers allowed Nosky ample leeway, and the jumbled concertino exchanges of the “Spring” concerto made for a disappointing start. Yet by Nosky’s second entrance she was confidently leaning into phrases and passionately shaping the rhapsodic central movement.
When the “Spring” concerto closed, Nosky interpolated a harmonically wandering cadenza, which in turn cued an unintelligible racetrack tempo for the first movement of “Summer”. The ensuing storm eruptions pulled soloist and ensemble together into a cohesive, hard-driving finale. Nosky’s busy ornamentation during the second movement of “Summer” eschewed Vivaldi’s images of scorching heat and swarming insects, opting for a purely musical, very personal interpretation.
More pinpoint terraced dynamics from the orchestra and another theatrically building cadenza from Nosky segued into the pastoral revelry of “Autumn.” The physically engaged soloist delighted in Vivaldi’s musical portrayal of partying shepherds, emphasizing his staggering lines and humorous staccato effects, even including a slapstick pluck or two (with exaggerated effects balanced by that age old comedic secret: timing). After a third, final and somewhat labored cadenza, “Winter” began with another careening tempo: Nosky’s playing now materialized as more articulate, pitting her icy solo passages against ominous ritornellos from the ensemble.
Yet the most engaging moment of Nosky’s performance occurred during lyrical second movement of “Winter”. Throughout the evening Nosky slipped into an acrid, at times scratchy top, yet here her lovingly crafted sound across all registers, without any eccentricities and massaged without being mannered, revealed a soloist who can “do” a cultivated, direct approach as she wishes. Nosky’s interpretive choices may not always please, but they are her choices, and surprising ones at that. It’s not your grandfather’s Vivaldi or maybe even that of most scholars, but it is the work of a sincere performer. Besides, how often do “surprising” and “Four Seasons” come up together?