in: Reviews

February 15, 2015

200-Year-Old Organization Accents Youth


Conductor Richard Egarr (file photo)

Conductor Richard Egarr (file photo)

The 200-year-old Handel and Haydn Society placed the accent on young composers and performers Friday night in “Mozart and Beethoven” at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. Beethoven composed his First Symphony at 27, and Mozart was only 12 when he completed his “Waisenhaus” Mass in C Minor, K. 139. And young choristers starred in the performance of Haydn’s Missa brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo. 

Handel and Haydn’s Collaborative Youth Concerts program brings together 60 public high school singers from 30 communities to study works from the classical choral repertoire and to perform with members of the H & H Period Instrument Orchestra and the H & H Vocal Quartet. Skillfully led by Lisa Graham, some 35 singers, including the vocal quartet, performed the Kyrie and Gloria from Haydn’s Missa with fresh, clear tone that was never forced, even in loud passages.

The soft, slow opening of the Kyrie unfolded with carefully nuanced dynamics yet precise attacks, becoming more assertive as the initial motive was repeated. The Christe, shifting from major to minor, brought a more anguished plea for mercy as richer and sometimes dissonant harmonies were introduced. A joyful mood returned in the Kyrie’s varied reprise as the sopranos soared to new heights. A typical practice in the Viennese Missa brevis of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was to shorten the length of the Gloria and Credo movements by “telescoping” the texts. In Haydn’s Missa, after the solo intonation of “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” successive fragments of the texts were declaimed simultaneously by the four vocal parts, alternating with independent motives in the accompanying strings. The liturgical text was complete though hardly intelligible—not really a problem for churchgoers or choral devotees who could be expected to know it by heart. Telescoping was abandoned in the final declamatory affirmation of “Cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris.” Instead of a traditional Amen fugue, Haydn contented himself with a hint of fugue in the rapid exchange of motives in imitation among the voices. Graham’s adroit direction guided the choristers and the H & H string players through the maze of contrasting textures with aplomb.

By 1800, Beethoven had lived and worked in Vienna for several years, and had already made his mark as a virtuoso pianist and as a composer of sonatas, trios, and quartets. Nevertheless, as Lewis Lockwood has pointed out, his symphonic debut was as cautious as it was bold. His First Symphony received its premiere alongside his own Septet and a piano concerto, a symphony by Mozart and selections from Haydn’s immensely popular Creation. Beethoven’s opening Adagio, a nod to the slow introductions of Haydn’s London Symphonies and Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, is famous for beginning unconventionally on a series of three dominant-seventh-to-tonic progressions on three different scale degrees, delaying the arrival of an actual tonic downbeat until the beginning of the Allegro; this is actually a condensed version of similar progressions in works by Haydn and Mozart. Yet Beethoven avoided the melodic symmetry typical of Mozart’s themes, while organizing his entire first movement around harmonic and thematic ideas stated in the openings of the Adagio and the Allegro.

Guest conductor Richard Egarr, music director of the Academy of Ancient Music in London, led the orchestra of period instruments, with the first and second violins grouped in opposing rather than adjoining positions. Horns, trumpets, and timpani were notable for their crisp attacks and purity of tone, as were the quartet of winds in frequent dialogue with the strings. Egarr brought out the playfulness of the Allegro, but also its drama: after a stentorian blast from the horns toward the end of the development, the recapitulation sounded more forthright than jesting. In the second movement, a leisurely Andante cantabile in a lighthearted 3/8 meter, Egarr paid skillful attention to the many details of instrumentation, particularly in the development and the varied restatement. The fast Menuetto approached a Scherzo in its wit, drive, and offbeat accents. The wonderful Trio, in rustic musette style, pitted a quartet of three winds and horn against doodling violins in the first section. In the second section, oboe and bassoon dropped out, leaving clarinet, horns, and violins exchanging shorter and shorter motives in a whispered race before the return of the entire ensemble. The Adagio that opened the Finale was almost a parody of a slow introduction. Tentative scale fragments in the first violins, gradually increasing in length and scope, inspired more than a few chuckles from the audience before the Allegro burst in. Egarr seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself as he whipped up this movement for all it was worth.

After the intermission the Handel and Haydn Orchestra was joined by its 21-member chorus in Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, K.139 (K. 47a), known as the “Waisenhausmesse” (Orphanage Mass). On December 7, 1768, during a prolonged stay of the Mozarts in Vienna, the newly built church of the Jesuit orphanage in Vienna was consecrated in the presence of the Empress Maria Theresa and her adult children. According to a Viennese newspaper reporting on the event, “all of the music sung by the orphanage choir in the High Mass was written by Wolfgang Mozart, the 12-year-old boy famous for his exceptional talent, son of Leopold Mozart, the Kapellmeister of the Prince’s court at Salzburg; it was newly composed for this occasion, and directed by the composer himself to the applause and admiration of all present; he conducted the Mass and the additional motets with the utmost accuracy . . . .” We do not know with certainty which Mass was performed on this occasion, yet there are clues: the autograph of K.139 was entirely written on paper used by Mozart in Vienna in 1768; moreover, the expansive form of this Neapolitan cantata-type Mass, outdated since the reforms of church music under Joseph II, would still have been in keeping with the celebratory occasion.

Only the first sections of the Kyrie and the Agnus Dei, along with the Crucifixus of the Credo are actually in C minor. In the Gloria, the Qui tollis section is in F minor, while all other movements are in major. The opening of the Kyrie depicted a scene from hell: cries from the entire chorus were followed by whole-measure rests, while descending motives in the violins were answered by sobs in the trombones and violas and finally, a full orchestra tremolando. In the Allegro that followed, trombones were replaced by trumpets, and further contrast was introduced by brief passages for vocal soloists, a perfectly matched quartet drawn from the chorus. The Christe, in F major, was scored entirely for the soloists, with the orchestra reduced to strings alone. The Gloria, set in contrasting sections, opened with a powerful chordal statement, followed with a lyrical duet for soprano Sonja Dutoit Tengblad and alto Emily Marvosh, a brief, declamatory passage, and another duet for tenor Stefan Reed and baritone David McFerrin. Tengblad’s light, clear tone remained warmly expressive even in coloratura passages; Marvosh’s deeper, richer voice maintained its clarity and flexibility, as well as precise intonation, throughout its range. Reed’s singing was notable for its refined sense of phrasing and style, his voice was well matched to McFerrin’s supple and pleasing baritone. Beginning at “Qui tollis peccata mundi,” a somber Adagio in F minor brought sudden harmonic turns in an agitated plea for mercy. Breaking into major, the soprano solo at “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” was pure operatic coloratura, adroitly executed by Tengblad. Following tradition, the concluding “Cum sancto spiritu” was a lively fugue. Highlights of the Credo were the central movements. “Et incarnatus est,” is a duet for soprano and alto in a lilting siciliano 6/8. The “Crucifixus” is scored for full chorus with muted trumpets sounding a death-knell ostinato and pleading motives in the trombones, all in the tradition of an operatic graveyard scene. From this deathly silence the soprano solo that announced the “Et resurrexit” appeared like a rocket. A double fugue on the words “Et vitam venturi” and “Amen” concluded the Credo—quite a tour de force for a 12-year-old!

The Sanctus set declamatory chords in the chorus, reinforced by oboes, trumpets, and timpani, against rapid passage work in the violins; in the Benedictus, an ornate soprano solo contrasted with tutti cries of “Osanna!” The graveside atmosphere returned in the Agnus Dei with a mournful melody for alto trombone over a walking bass introducing the tenor solo. In the joyful “Dona nobis pacem” that concluded the Mass, the somber trombones were replaced, appropriately, by triumphant trumpets and timpani.

Egarr kept the momentum going through changes in mood, tempo, and scoring as multiple sections followed one another in rapid succession. As his preliminary remarks demonstrated, he clearly enjoyed the dramatic and lyric aspects of Mozart’s first Mass just as he reveled in the humor and virtuosity of Beethoven’s symphonic debut. And the audience caught on, daring to applaud after each movement of the symphony, and to chuckle at Beethoven’s tentative introduction to his Finale, with no dismayed glances or whispers of “Sshh” to spoil their fun.

Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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