In putting together her first-ever outing as leader/director of the ensemble, Handel & Haydn Society Concertmaster Aislinn Nosky had a very clever idea: prepare her performance of Mendelssohn’s early Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Minor by highlighting works and composers who were influential on Mendelssohn, and whose music was represented in Mendelssohn’s extensive personal library. Consequently, in the H&H performances on April 4th and 6th (we heard the one on Sunday April 6th at Sanders Theatre), the program included work by Vivaldi, Handel, J.S. and C.P.E. Bach before the Mendelssohn concerto closed it out.
Sadly, construction and general pokiness on the Red Line prevented our hearing the Vivaldi Concerto in G major, RV 151, so readers who were there can chime in below on how it went. The original opener for the program was intended to be Handel’s Concerto Grosso in B minor, op. 6 No. 12, but the program was altered so that everything was presented in (well, nearly) chronological order. The op. 6 set of concertos dates from the 1730s, with the batch published in 1739, so represent Handel at just about his apex. The concertino consists of two violins and cello, but as with many such works for string ensembles against string ensembles, it seems as though one really has to be watching to get the interplay between them (this is true for us, anyway, even in such late works as Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia).
Nominally in five movements, the Largo movements in first and fourth place read to modern ears more like slow introductions to the fast movements that follow. The languid yet rhythmically marked first one could in some ways even be mistaken for Vivaldi, especially with its unusual-for-Handel minor modality; the following Allegro was delightfully perky and crisp, with H&H’s crack ensemble clean and tight. The middle Larghetto aria is one of Handel’s most famous pieces, on which H&H doted lovingly, yet with a noticeably light touch. The finale was in equal measures vehement and jocular, bringing out Nosky’s apparent penchant for kinetic leadership.
The first half closed with the familiar Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043, of J. S. Bach. This piece, like most of Bach’s secular instrumental music, dates from Bach’s Köthen period (1717-23) and therefore is earlier than the Handel, though Bach apparently thought well enough of it that he performed it after he had settled in Leipzig. Juxtaposing the Handel and Bach like this (whether this was the point of the program order change or not, we don’t know) was a good idea, as it highlighted the stylistic contrast between these two pillars of the late Baroque, Bach with his contrapuntal dexterity everywhere in evidence, and Handel’s greater reliance on homophony and rhythmic contrast.
We noticed other interesting contrasts in this concerto, specifically between the sounds of the two soloists, Nosky being joined here by Associate Concertmaster Christina Day Martinson. It could be the part, or it could be the instrument, or it could be the style of performance, but Martinson’s sound was uniformly brighter and more resonant than Nosky’s, despite the latter’s visually more vivid presentation. The first movement was bustling yet businesslike, with lines flipping back and forth between soloists and between the soloists and the ensemble. The slow movement started out a bit wan, with not a lot of forwardness in either soloist’s playing, but things warmed up with a more glowing expressivity despite a lack of edge in the tone that probably speaks more of the gut strings than of the performers’ calculation (original-type instruments are fine, but unless they are being performed in original-type rooms, something is going to get lost). The finale packed commendable pep, with the tutti finally able to pipe up and show off how smartly and authoritatively they can sound. Wearing her conductor’s hat, Nosky would occasionally turn her back to the audience to cue or cajole—who knew that André Rieu walked in the footsteps of the immortals?
The next felicitous pairing came after intermission, in which Bach #2 fils was represented next to papa. Actually, the stylistic progression from JSB to Handel to CPEB was the one we carried best from this assortment. Emanuel Bach’s Symphony in B-flat major, Wq 182/2 was one of his great set of proto-symphonies dating from 1773, a year in which both Haydn and Mozart were active. Despite being, by this time, cast in a somewhat antiquated Rococo style, it is full of the personal quirks that make his music so fascinating and that, we hope, will be better served in this his tercentenary than has been the case since his father’s reputation eclipsed his in the 19th century. H&H got it off to a bang-up start, with rhythmic snap and sharp lines (we thought the characteristic tutti trills could have been a bit clearer, though). The orchestra didn’t dwell greatly on the sudden tempo shifts and full stops that were Emanuel’s signature traits, and which were so influential on Haydn, but instead concentrated on keeping up the momentum. The slow movement seemed more serene than melancholy (another CPEB hallmark) in presentation, and the orchestra adopted a most interesting portamento in places. The finale, again, was taken on a tear, with good dynamic contrasts, sectional cohesion and interplay.
Finally, the Mendelssohn. We remember hearing this work, dating from the time of his string symphonies and thus part of his tutelage (he wrote it at age 13), when it was first uncovered in modern times and championed by Yehudi Menuhin; it doesn’t get much play, partly because of its obvious stylistic backwardness, and partly because, well, there’s that unbeatable second concerto. This is a shame, because it has immense charm in its own right, and because it’s fun to hear hints of the “real” Mendelssohn emerging from—even, in a sense struggling to escape—the student’s absorption of the long-ago past. What’s truly fascinating is how Mendelssohn, as in many of his string symphonies, takes Baroque style as his starting point and leapfrogs right over the Classical period into the early Romantic.
Nosky’s performance was generous and on point. The first movement was brisk and straightforward, though the second subject was replete with lyric charm. Only in the coda of this movement could one detect the signature Mendelssohn sound, but it was impossible to disguise in the lovely slow movement, which, despite what we said above, did contain some hints of familiarity with Mozart (as was the case with early Schubert), but with some “daring” harmonic bends. Nosky thankfully dialed way back on the body English here, and communicated directly and earnestly, with some brilliant pianissimo playing. The finale is a rondo with a jolly gypsy-like tune, clearly inhabiting the proto-Romantic world of Hummel and Spohr. In places where a lyrical solo was cut off by the gruff tutti, there was a return to the Marxist dialectic (think Groucho vs. Chico), but the aural experience was faultless. The audience roared its approval.