Cambridge Concentus launched its season yesterday at First Church in Cambridge with two works of Franz Joseph Haydn. Both written in 1799, they afforded the group opportunities to engage in the many expressive devices found in the music of the composer’s later years. Ultimately, the engagement was brilliant, but not without its hitches.
The program opened with four members of the Concentus performing Haydn’s String Quartet op. 77, No. 1, one of his last three pieces in that form. Being the mature work of a master of non-texted drama-in-Tonality, it bubbles with emotional contrast, both subtle and overt. Unfortunately, the delicate technique with which the performers approached the piece (one that is often associated with period performance) was not up to the task of fully emoting those contrasts. The players threaded their way skillfully yet lightly through all the movements, which did result in some truly beautiful moments, such as the opening of the Adagio. In general, however, the thread was too fine; where there should have been bounce and bite, such as the Minuet-Trio, there was instead a monochromatic, albeit lovely legato mush. The overall effect was oddly akin to watching a gymnast attempting a trampoline act on a doily.
The rest of the program was dedicated to Haydn’s Mass in B-flat, known as the Theresienmesse. Instead of the large-scale forces usually employed for this work, conductor Joshua Rifkin chose a “one-on-a-part” ensemble: four vocal soloists, another four for the chorus, and an instrumental complement of only 14 players, all on period instruments. As one would expect, the striking textural contrasts between solo and tutti passages were lost with this set-up, as was the generally impressive power that a big group can emit. What was gained, however, was stunning: the rich sonority of a vibrant meta-ensemble, a prismatic sort of “orchorustra” through which the music shone with a balanced and brilliant clarity. Overall, the piece is more subdued than Haydn’s more popular masses, yet is replete with the direct word-painting and deep, restrained emotionality that inhabits all his sacred works. Rifkin’s interpretation was wonderfully sensitive to this form of expression. Thoughtful, energetic, with an impeccably musical sense of phrasing, he and the ensemble were able to deliver the loveliness and liveliness of the work without slipping into Romantic weightiness. As a bonus, language aficionados were treated to an appropriately Germanic pronunciation of the liturgical Latin; it is a seemingly small detail that, when applied, exposes a fascinating layer of the music’s time and place.
If any complaint were to be had, it would be that the performance space was too live. Some of the more subtle sonic details in the instrumentation were lost, and the colors of the ensemble somewhat blurred in the echo-y wash of the church’s sanctuary. Nonetheless, it was a vivid and joyous performance, and this reviewer looks very much forward to the ensemble’s Biber program next February.