As the Handel & Haydn Society moves toward its 200th birthday party next year, it was heartening to hear it in the immensely capable hands of Harry Christophers. On Friday, Bach’s incomparable Mass in B-Minor served to add another jewel to Christophers’ crown.
Singing Bach in Symphony Hall presents some daunting challenges, and this performance was up to nearly all of them, at turns delivering clear declamation of text, clarity of texture, counterpoint, and an elegant balance between intensity and restraint, all worthy of this extraordinary music. Christophers knows how to pace a large choral work both within and between the various movements, and the B-Minor is rarely so convincingly set in motion. Right from the opening chord, and especially in the first fugal Kyrie Eleison, the dynamics worked perfectly, and seemed entirely appropriate to the ebb and flow of both fugal Kyries.
Listening to this, I recalled hearing a performance in the late 1950s by the Society in which Messiah was presented with a huge orchestra and a chorus of at least 150. By the 1970s, the performances of Thomas Dunn, even as he reduced forces perhaps to too great an extent, nonetheless brought a new/old approach and fresh dimensions to the music. Now we have arrived at a balance which seems to serve the music perfectly. The program notes mentioned the first Boston performance of the Mass by H&H in 1887 (this of excerpts only, in the style of the day), and it was easy to wonder just how that would have sounded. Today, the music is allowed to speak for itself, something at which Christophers excels. Free from “effects,” the music speaks to great “affect,” just as it should. (Anyone who has heard an exaggerated “early music” version of the Mass, or an over-bloated, old-fashioned attempt will be—as I was—deeply moved by the direct and legitimate style of the current approach.)
All the soloists sang beautifully, with a few mixed results in projecting adequate tone into the massive room, but at no time did Christophers allow the orchestra to cover the voices. Concertmistress Aisslinn Nosky’s violin solo with Catherine Hedberg in the Laudamus Te was near-perfection, and another highlight was from Teresa Wakim, soprano, and Matthew Anderson, tenor in the Domine Deus, their lines intertwining quietly and stunningly with Christopher Krueger’s limpid Baroque flute. Alto Margaret Lias was arresting in the Qui sedes as dexteram solo, with ravishing strings and Stephen Hammer’s baroque oboe, and Woodrow Bynum’s rich bass dialogued robustly with the brave horn (open valve) of R. J. Kelley. Tempos in the first half of the program were effective and brisk. The final chorus before intermission, Cum sancto spiritu, began perhaps one or two metronome markings too quickly, but settled down a bit just in time for the fugal section, bringing the first half to a stirring climax.
Christophers’ pacing of the second half worked especially well; the chorus and orchestra continued their brilliant work, and bass David McFerrin and tenor Stefan Reed brought just the right senses to their arias (Et in spiritum sanctum and Benedictus qui venit, respectively.) In the Symbolum Nicenum (Nicene Creed, the first and longest section of the second part), the core of the Creed is the Et incarnatus est, Crucifixus, and Et Resurrexit, and the first two were imbued with an affecting, ethereal tone which conveyed perfectly their meaning, with the third taken in a perfect and joyous tempo. Alto Emily Marvosh’s solo was the evening’s standout in the Agnus Dei, yet again giving not only of her glorious vocal resources, but—in the very best sense—the skill of an actress, not only with her singing, but in the way she walks, looks, and conveys this poignant music. I was reminded of her similar radiance in last season’s Bach Magnificat.
This concert made clear the great promise of next year’s 200th H&H anniversary and bodes extremely well for a great celebration of the oldest and perhaps most venerable choral group in the United States. Here’s to 200 more!