“Psalms of David” opened Boston Cecilia 141st season on Friday with Handel’s 1707 setting of Psalm 110, Dixit Dominus (HWV 23), and Mozart’s Davide Penitente (K 469)–settings of contemporary Italian translations of the Psalms. Nicholas White led the chorus and period orchestra.
Friday’s program was unified under the broad umbrella of music setting the texts from the Psalms, but in doing so, presented a compelling contrast of southern European baroque with the northern European rococo that would arise less than a century later. Dixit Dominus comes from Handel’s Italian years: the setting was written in Rome during a period when opera was banned in Florence and Venice, and while Handel focused on sacred music and secular cantatas. It is unknown why Handel composed the anthem, although scholars suggest that the work’s martial soundscape is connected with the Spanish ambassador Don Pedro Tellez, who provided military aide to Rome around the time of the composition. The nine-movement anthem, however, is dramatically illustrated with substantial polyphonic passages, fervid exclamations and expressive arias that blur the boundaries between religious cantata and opera. These memorable pieces, unsurprisingly, were reemployed in his later oratorios: the fifth movement was recycled in Israel in Egypt (“He led them through the deep”), Deborah, and the Chandos anthems.
Mozart completed Davide Penitente in Vienna nearly 80 years after Handel’s Dixit. Most of the music for the settings of these texts derives from an earlier C Minor Mass, K 427 (1782-1783), written in gratitude (and with his mother-in-law’s prompting) for his wife’s recovery from illness. The composer repurposed its Kyrie and Gloria for the 1785 Davide Penitente, composed for the Tonkünstler-Societät. Mozart adds two arias to this oratorio, “A te, fra tanti affanni” and “Fra l’oscure ombre funeste,” and a final extended cadenza. Sonically, we are in a very different sound-world than that of Handel: Mozart’s oratorio is elegant and stylized compared to its earlier impassioned, dramatic Italian counterpart, yet not completely cleansed of the Baroque influence. Davide comes from a period in which Mozart was engaging with the fugues of both J. S. Bach and Handel; the oratorio contains many experiments, including an intricate fugue in the final movement. But even at his most Baroque, Mozart’s counterpoint engages in simpler melodic lines and clearer textures that draw a stark distinction from his predecessors.
White’s led compelling readings of both works, and both benefitted from the change of venue from Cecilia’s home at Brookline’s All Saints’ Parish to Jordan Hall: The two grand scale compositions, both intricate in detail, thrived in the clearer acoustics of a concert hall.
Handel’s Dixit Dominus featured satisfying walls of sound in homophonic passages. Polyphonic choral passages, however, consistently suffered in White’s driven tempos, resulting in shaggy execution devoid of enunciation and shape. Relaxed movements seemed much more comfortable: a deliberate Conquassabit capita in terra multorum in the seventh movement proved particularly memorable. The pensive and plaintive Judicabit in nationibus came across as genuinely felt.
The choir seemed much more at ease with Davide. In Mozart’s counterpoint, particularly in the first movement, far more confidence and attention to detail emerged: inner voices gained prominence and the music developed engaging shape and satisfying expressive nuance
Clara Rottsolk (replacing an ailing Emily Noёl), Sarah Yanovitch, Daniel Roihl , Alexander Nishibun and Charlie Evett gave fine solo turns throughout the evening, as did countertenor Daniel Roihl’s in the alto aria in the second movement of Dixit Dominus (Virgam virtutis tuae). With gentle, affable tone and warm vibrato, he managed melismæ with level-headed ease. Rottsolk and Yanovitch figured prominently in Davide Penitente. In (Lungi le cure ingrate), Rottsolk’s amber tone proved elegant and well-shaped; Yanovitch’s far brighter voice reveled in a jeweled vibrato that opened up nicely in her upper range. The two collaborated nicely in Sorgi, Signore. Alexander Nishibun joined them in the terzetto ninth movement (Tutte le mie speranze); as a soloist in the sixth movement (A te, fra tanti affanni) his prominent brassy tenor mingled nicely with the rich textures of the full orchestra.
Cecilia brings its its Christmas concert, “Puer Natus Est” to Boston’s Church of the Advent on December 2nd and to All Saints on the 4th .
In preparing these thoughts about Boston Cecilia, I read over Cashman Kerr Prince’s Intelligencer coverage of the ensemble’s audition cycle in 2013-14, as well as older articles on Don Teeters and his work with the chorus. In both programming and execution, the ensemble I heard on Friday is certainly not the same chorus that once sang with the BSO; Cecilia now is a very different ensemble than it was under Teeters. While I was surprised and perhaps disappointed to see that the group has clearly moved in a direction that diverges from its storied history, it also seems unfair to hold it to the same standards of earlier eras: perhaps it is OK to look forward to this new chapter for the Boston Cecilia as one that will provide a different experience for Boston audiences and performers alike