For 201 years the Handel and Haydn Society has, on the slow pendulum of taste, subtended the broad interval between enthusiastic amateur performances and brilliantly articulated professional ones—which is where their clock now, providentially, seems stuck. Essaying J. S. Bach cantatas and a concerto in the company of a fine Heinrich Schütz motet (no Scheidt) on this particular Friday at Symphony Hall (repeating Sunday afternoon there), the forces under Harry Christophers got to show off individuals’ qualities in a mostly fast-moving workout of speed, clarity, and splendid vocal and instrumental production. The sensory antennae of this emotionally informed listener quivered only sporadically, while his critical ears inflamed appreciatively at the un-muddied virtuosity of Boston’s most reliable periodic orchestra and chorus.
At the conclusion of the orchestra’s typical Talmudic discussions of what constitutes A, Christophers sauntered out for a brief appreciation of two recently deceased trustees, one of whom, Wat H. Tyler Jr., a particularly beloved leader, he actually named. Coming to us from new line-array speakers camouflaged on the proscenium arch, Christophers’s words echoed less than amplified speech generally does at Symphony Hall. (And what a relief to have the disfiguring boxes of the past consigned to oblivion.)
A fleet take on Bach’s Komm Jesu, Komm S.229 found the chorus not entirely lining up their “T”s and “S”es, nor were the period strings particularly unanimous about pitch. If text hadn’t been provided, the subject of weariness with life would hardly have been made manifest in this smiling rendition. The second part of the cantata, a chorale beginning with a goodnight to the world, appropriately placed us in a groove more suited to the mood of the Word.
Intense new cardinal aisle carpets matched the hair of violinist Aisslinn Nosky, who led colleagues Christina Day Martinson and Susanna Ogata onto the stage for a vertiginous vision of Bach’s Concerto in D Major for Three Violins, S.1064R. For all of their prancing and speediness, though, the three soloists never quite caught fire in either of the outer allegro movements, and their rapid passagework did not always benefit from polished tuning. The concerto’s inner largo might have drawn us into deeper realms had Christophers been there to inspire. The all-ahead-flank recapitulation, however, brought delight to the enthusiastic crowd. And I am sorry to report that the musical universe of sumptuous tones Miriam Fried produced on a 1718 Strad and Baroque bow (historical enough?) in Jordan Hall a few nights ago found no counterpart in last night’s effusions from this early ménage à trois.
Beginning with the stylish synchronized trilling of natural trumpeters Timothy Will, Paul Perfetti, and Vincent Monaco, Bach’s Cantata 149, Mann singt mit Freuden vom Sieg (One sings with the joy of victory) occasioned appreciative contemplation of the many individuals who form the estimable ensemble. Much manna came from the continuo grouping: rippling organist Ian Watson (not so audible on harpsichord), the foundational but un-growling underpinning of bass Anthony Manzo, and the stylish vocalizing of invariably fresh song from cellist Guy Fishman. Stepping out of the chorus, the vocal soloists also earned encomia. The first, David McFerrin, while projecting with grave assurance, did not quite engage enough to channel the Kraft und Stärke gesungen (Strong and mighty sing[ing]) for which the librettist Picander called. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Hedberg’s rapturous recitative willed us to consider the Lamb of God, and Margot Rood followed as an angel bearing us in her hands through the most dulcet tones imaginable. Her legato deliciously spanned a rather relentless three-meter from the band. If tenor Jonas Budris sounded a bit pinched as he intoned a recitative of thanks, his cords opened remarkably in the trio, Seid wachsam, ihr heilgen Wächter (Be watchful, you holy watchmen) with Hedberg and swinging bassoonist Andrew Schwartz, whose jollity evoked a conversational afternoon in a Bachian Biergarten. The concluding chorale saturated the space with praiseful gratification.
Casting away all displeasure, energetic fuguing, as if toned on an elliptical machine, characterized Cantata 50, Nun is das Heil und Kraft (Now comes salvation and might). The excellent singers, clearly knowing everyone else’s parts as well, never seemed to need cuing for their multiple entrances; the three trumpets, along with paukenist Jonathan Hess, provided emphatic punctuation.
Your reporter’s attentively cupped ears found the sonorities Christophers drew forth in Schütz’s accompanied motet Herr, nun lässet du deinen Diener (Lord, now let they servant depart in peace), SWV432, the best-made match of composer and performers and performance style all night. Pungent polyphony in the company of the organ-centric continuo robed the work in a sacredness rather lacking in the more theatrical Bach selections. Shapely and artful the singing was indeed. Christopher’s directs his Sixteen in the piece below.
Bach’s Magnificat motored magnificently in turbo mode, perhaps taking the course speed record from Boston Baroque while missing nary a gate or turn. Sonja DuToit Tengblad’s outing in the Et exultavit felt a bit rushed, and lacking in contrasts, though her well-produced clarity charmed withal. The virtual trio of soprano Rood with the plangent oboe of Gonzalo Ruiz and cellist Fishman elicited smiles from all. Woodrow Bynum’s delivery of Quia fecit disclosed a shining silk instrument without a lining of wool. The duet of Et misericordia as enacted by mezzo Katherine Growdon and tenor Stefan Reed provided a glam intro to the chorus’s famed Fecit potentiam, which began at speed before coming to a full stop and picturesque ritard at Superbos. Ravishing flutists Christopher Krueger and Wendy Rolfe exalted in thanksgiving with mezzo Growdon in a most pleasant Esurientis implevit bonus (He has filled the hungry with good things). The Sucepit looked fondly back to Schütz, perhaps, and made the former’s inclusion more sonically logical, especially as formed, and informed, by Christophers’s princely conviction.
Gloria Patri and from us all, thanks and amen.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.