The Handel and Haydn Society plays Haydn. Makes sense, right? No surprise to hear four works by the esteemed composer and one half of this institution’s namesake on its “Haydn in Paris” program. Given the reputations of this period instrument orchestra and of its conductor Harry Christophers, it’s not even a surprise to hear those works performed magnificently. That’s just what this ensemble does, right?
Yet on Friday night the Handel and Haydn Society still managed to open ears and raise eyebrows beyond the expected calls of “well-played!” and “just beautiful…” from a grateful audience at Symphony Hall.
It started with the sheer sound of this orchestra. Its strings can be warm and coaxing, for example in the slow introduction to the Symphony No. 6 in D Major, Le Matin (Morning), rich yet playful as in the second movement Adagio or aggressively bright for the martial first movement of the Symphony No. 82 in C Major, The Bear. Winds and brass seized upon Haydn’s ingenuity as well as love of orchestral color. More than sounding desolate, the overture to L’Isola Disabitata (The Deserted Island) turned downright haunting. Le Matin featured several short but charming solos for flutist Christopher Krueger and bassoonist Andrew Schwartz, as well as dialog between concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky and cellist Guy Fishman. Some listeners may have preferred more definition from the (notoriously temperamental) horns but this ensemble’s organic cohesion and utter snap was compelling throughout.
Harry Christophers’ direction is obviously a huge part of that sound. His tempos allowed an intriguing balance: he eased back slightly in the first movement of the Le Matin while the following Adagio kept up a good clip, like a relaxed morning that gradually builds into bigger and better things. Christophers also avoided the racehorse fast movements of some period instrument groups or the lush, dragging slow movements of some large symphony orchestras. The minuets of both Le Matin and The Bear were stately and melodic, followed by climactic final movements.
The conductor also consistently demonstrated a knack for knowing when to craft a phrase or push a rhythm, and when to leave things up to the empathy and inertia of the orchestra: he milked a few phrase endings in The Bear’s Vivace Assai, stepped things up incrementally towards the end of the skipping Allegretto and exploded the false endings of the droning final movement, whipping the musicians into a frenzy that belied any notion of period instruments being too soft or delicate.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening came with Christophers leaving the stage for Nosky to lead the ensemble and perform as soloist in Haydn’s Violin Concerto in G Major. Haydn wrote this piece early on his career as a showcase for the brilliant violinist Luigi Tomassini at Esterhazy. Its displays, dialogs between soloist and orchestra and chipper air can recall the light, bright but often one-dimensional works of the transitional Galant period. Just not in Nosky’s hands.
Playing crisply without turning dainty, the violinist also dug into phrases over sustained chords in the first movement, leaned into high notes to add a smirk to the refined atmosphere and rode a gentle, laid back rhythm for the final movement. Her direction and solos were a welcome departure from the singsong feel and dustings in powdered sugar work that this lesser known work seems to invite. Tight yet spontaneous-sounding cadenzas just added to the sense of mature humor. The audience clapped between movements at several points, mercifully breaking concert etiquette and revealing just how much Handel and Haydn can still surprise its listeners, no matter how much they’ve spoiled us.
Andrew J. Sammut also writes for Early Music America and All About Jazz and blogs on the pop of yestercentury on his blog, Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic. He also plays clarinet and lives in Cambridge.