With a nod to history, and an astute ear to giving pleasure, Handel & Haydn Society embarked on its bicentennial season in a retrospective program featuring Mozart’s Requiem. While requiems don’t seem particularly celebratory, this one guarantees attractions and thrill. And this Symphony Hall audience was well-provided with both.
The Handel and Haydn Society’s long run began on Christmas Day, 1815, in King’s Chapel. That inauguration included part of Haydn’s The Creation, and a glee by Samuel Webbe. This partial reenactment did as well, rounding out with the conductor’s favorite Haydn symphony, a nod to Mozart rounding out the Classical pantheon. On Sunday the “will call” line for tickets stretched around the corner of Symphony Hall, past the stage door. In the end, this was not a standing-room only concert but Symphony Hall was certainly packed. (One wonders how crowded the 1815 concert was?)
The program opened with Haydn’s Symphony no. 99 in E-flat Major, I/99 (1794). Here for the first time Haydn included clarinets in a symphony, and the woodwinds are prominent. The opening Adagio was tame, stylized, and very classical, then the first movement took life when it transitioned to Vivace assai. The development has shades of a rustic Trio (heard elsewhere in Haydn), with prominent use of clarinet. The second movement Adagio is a subdued affair, recalling an evening in the country with birds chirping. (No doubt this was a surprise for the London audience in the February premiere.) Its pastoral, but also an opportunity for the woodwinds to shine. The Menuet: Allegretto opens dramatically and has a whiff of the thunderous about it even as it retains an essentially happy cast. The Finale: Vivace is a fun exploration and fitting summation of the whole. Clarinetist Antony Pay gave a commendable performance, filling this highlighted role of the symphony with lovely lines and expressive phrasing. The orchestra as a whole gave a mighty reading of the music. I heard connections here with Beethoven’s Eroica written a decade later; it would great fun to program both together and explore how they interact.
A select chorus took the stage next for a glee composed for voices and organ (Ian Watson ably plying the 2001 Henk Klop portativ): Samuel Webbe’s When winds breathe soft. Webbe, one-time organist and choirmaster at London’s Portuguese Chapel (where the Roman Catholic liturgy could be celebrated openly), was well-known in the early 19th century even if less famous today. The text is a four-stanza poem on the vagaries of the weather in the countryside, moving from pastoral pleasantness to tossing tempest, then ending on calm quietude. Webbe crafted a charming “hymn/motet” filled with musical word-painting, magnifying Jehovah through the power of nature in a way that almost makes of Nature a deity. I have no idea how this work compares to Webbe’s other compositions but I am now curious to learn more.
The full chorus entered for Part I, Scene 4 from The Creation, Hob. XXI:2. This selection of recitatives (“And God said: Let there be lights” and “In splendor bright is rising now”) and Trio with Chorus (“The heavens are telling”) showcased tenor Robert Murray as Uriel, with Lauren Snouffer (soprano) and Dashon Burton (bass-baritone) joining in as Gabriel and Raphael. This magnificat was a tasty morsel. It hearkened back to the inaugural concert and reminded all that H & H’s live recording of The Creation was on sale during intermission.
The second half contained but one work: Mozart’s Requiem, K. 626. Little need be said about the music, but I wish more had been said about the perennial problem of edition used. The unfinished state at the time of Mozart’s death, the financial need for the commissioning fee, various statements made by Constanze (among others), the unclear role of “little notes” which guided (or not) Süssmayr, cinematic misdirection… Confutatis maledictis indeed. I think the choristers sang from a Bärenreiter edition (guessing based on the blue covers I saw) although whether it was the newer edition of Süssmayr’s “completion” or an older one I could not say. I do wish Neff’s notes, which gave some of the composition history, had included this small yet crucial detail.
As for the performance itself: what can I say? This is music to which I respond viscerally. Yes, the whole composition is uneven; parts sound derivative and crack-handed, but other parts thrill, harnessing sonic power both to evoke the awe of death and solace the living. The musicians gave superb voice to this music. Dashon Burton (bass-baritone) was spine-chilling in his powerful rendition, clear enunciation, and forthright delivery. Robert Murray (tenor) proved plaintive and emphatic while Hannah Pedley (mezzo-soprano) brought measured hope to her role. Lauren Snouffer (soprano) rounded out the soloists, with a rich voice that was the delight atop a musical sea of lovely.
My only quibble was with the casting of the soloists. The Handel and Haydn Society now presents itself as a period orchestra and chorus and aims for a consistent, period-appropriate aesthetic. The quartet of singers were not unified in their performance practice, though all apparently have period-singing experience and expertise. Burton, Murray, and Pedley evinced a more historically-informed style throughout, while Snouffer stood out with her more operatic technique and delivery. While I like all four individually, this combination did not work for me. A foursome with more matched vocal styles might have raised those empyrean heights into the realm of the sublime.