Appropriately enough for the Handel and Haydn Society’s Bicentennial season, it examined of some lesser-known works of its second namesake, Franz Josef Haydn. Despite his mammoth reputation, most casual concertgoers know only a handful of his late works whose belated mastery obscure the Haydn who was for decades an experimentalist and formal tinkerer toiling away in lesser courts. Friday’s Symphony Hall program (which will be repeated Sunday at 3 p.m.) offered a chance to observe the composer as he worked with different degrees of success to define the symphony and refine the concerto.
Symphony No. 7, Hob I:7, “Le Midi,” is the second of a set of three written in 1761, when the 29-year-old Haydn had just begun working for the Esterhazy court. According to artistic director and conductor Harry Christophers, “The first concert I ever gave with the H+H was at the Esterhaza Palace in Eisenstadt in August 2006. We performed ‘Le Midi’ on the very stage Haydn performed it for his new employer… Directly overhead were the ceiling paintings of ‘Le Matin,’ ‘Le Midi,’ and ‘Le Soir’…”. There is not a lot in “Le Midi” that makes me think of noontime except insofar as its ingenuity and surprises suggest neither the sleepy beginnings nor the tired endings of the day, leaving naught but the middle. After a brief, slow introduction, the first movement breaks into a triple-time melody that would be grave and stately played on its own, but with the strings rapidly subdividing each note the mood, it is filled with a happy agitation. The structural experiment here is that much of the work develops through the work of three solo parts—two violins (played by concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky and Susanna Ogata) and a cello (played by Guy Fishman) —producing something like conversational development. This emphasis on solo lines is even more explicit in the second movement, much of which is in the form of an operatic recitative and aria, complete with dramatic solo statements, alternating tempi, and florid melody. The violin carries the initial burden, but is eventually joined by the cello, which nudges the music into more emotional territory; near the end of the movement they share an extended passage, just the two of them. The second half of the third-movement trio also included a solo passage for double bass which by Anthony Manzo endowed with beautiful and unexpected plaintiveness. The polished full ensemble sound was especially luminous in the second movement; the pulse and rhythm in the extrovert finale particularly joyous. However, there was a bit of gloss that understated the unusual qualities: the concertante parts in the first movement blended so smoothly into the ensemble that their solo qualities were blunted; the theatrical possibilities of the second movement were unexploited. Nosky and Fishman created some lovely moments in their duo moments, but they were oddly matched: Nosky unrhetorical and a bit withdrawn, Fishman somehow both big-boned and wistful.
Likely written about the same time as the symphony, the Violin Concerto in C Major, Hob. VIIa:1 is more incremental in its explorations. The opening movement has a melody that is stately and square, with the alternations between soloist and the orchestra soberly constructed; the phrasing often falls into predictable multiples of two. The subtleties here reminded me of pieces by lesser lights such as Carl Stamitz, but with flashes of brilliance here and there that reminded you who you were dealing with. Solo passages are dealt out deliberately, but within them there are often surprising rhythmic gestures and melodic misdirections. The brief cantabile second movement is quite beautiful but modest; the rolling triple-time finale makes much out of the ability of stringed instruments to play rapid repeated notes. Nosky was both conductor and soloist, directing the orchestra with eye-glances, expressive head-tilts, and moving dance-like in her place. She played with a tone and expression that was nimble, sweet and singing, and not at all dominating; playing in front of a quite small ensemble, she disappeared in and out of the fabric of sound at will, never unintentionally covered, but rarely out front. Perhaps due to the incoming storm wreaking havoc on temperature or humidity, there were several places where intonation became wayward, adding an unwelcome tartness to high passages. Given the charisma of her stage presence—carmine-copper spiky hair, flared topcoat with its rows of military buttons, and outgoing physicality—it was a slight mystery that she chose to play from score. She was stationed behind a stand, which stood between her and the audience, as well as half of the orchestra. Perhaps this was a gesture of collegiality, or a conscious decision to not separate the soloist from the orchestra. The solo part is, after all, called upon to play with the rest of the section in the tuttis; this felt like a lost opportunity.
After the intermission, the overture to the comic-opera La Speziale (1768) received came in and energetic performance. Consisting of a fun and fast opening section, a rustic slow melody, and then a very brief recapitulation of the fast music that ends unexpectedly, it sounds like an excellent way to start a humorous opera, although it felt a bit misshapen standing alone. Its muscular vocabulary, though, prepared us for the finest work on the program, the Symphony 83 in G Minor, Hob. I:83, “The Hen”(1784), so named due to grace-noted repeated figures that call to mind poultry to active imaginations. Haydn’s growth in evoking emotion is obvious from the very first bars, where the stormy statement of a G-minor chord grabs the listener viscerally in a way none of the preceding music had. The symphony is, among other things, a study in the use of repetition of pitches, most masterfully in the second movement where several times a single chord is repeated in eighth-notes with decreasing volume to the point of becoming unbearable, when Haydn finally lets go of it with a great outburst. Christophers and the band were able to bring those notes to the very edge of audibility with no loss of control or tone, pulling the listener in to the trap. Played with both exposition and development repeats (as was all of the evening’s music, I believe), the gesture had a subtly different effect each time it arrived. Christophers had a bit of dance to his conducting, somewhat as Nosky did, but he’s more fluid, more athletic, and is able to signal great emotions with just his shoulders. After gathering steam, the finale rollicked to a significant ovation.