The Handel and Haydn Society kicked off its season this Friday with two exuberant Bach concertos, played mostly-standing, in Boston’s Symphony Hall. Concertmaster Aislinn Nosky and Assistant Concertmaster Susanna Ogata led the fireworks with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048 and the athletic Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, BWV 1043, delightfully dueling for control of the ensemble. Harry Christophers directed the Brandenburg collaboratively and led three substantial Bach cantatas in more top-down fashion to produce one of the lightest, most energetic events I’ve heard in the hall for years.
Nosky plays a singing, bright 1746 Barcelona violin made by Salvator Bofill. This rare instrument is well known in the early music community, and Nosky has been continually praised for her focus, virtuosity, and enthusiasm since becoming H+H’s concertmaster in 2011. Ogata uses a 1772 Joseph Klotz violin from Mittenwald, Germany (the same maker as one of Mozart’s personal instruments). These instruments employ gut strings, narrower tailpieces, differently angled necks, and smaller bows than modern instruments, giving them both a warmer tone and the sweet, light voice the composers probably expected.
Bach’s music sparkles with wit in its freest moments, and H+H chose to contrast the full ensemble of strings and continuo (employing harpsichord in the concerti) with a smaller group for the opening Brandenburg No. 3. The smaller band included Nosky, Ogata and Johanna Novom on violin; Karina Schmitz, Anne Black, and Jenny Sterling on viola; the full cello section of Guy Fishman, Sarah Freiburg, and colleen McGary-Smith; and continuo players Heather Miller Lardin (bass) and Ian Watson (harpsichord). This dramatic opener showed off the group’s dynamism and physical flexibility, establishing orchestral virtuosity as the focus of the evening.
The professional chorus of H+H is internationally respected for its precision and ability to make complex polyphony speak in the most cavernous of halls. Christophers pulled a wide range of vocal color from them, choosing tempi that would have stymied most choruses in the opening fugues from the fifth part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Ehre sei dir, Gott, and from Cantata 179, Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei, (See that your fear of God is not hypocrisy). Aaron Sheehan served as a charming, efficient Evangelist, delivering his three complex recitatives with panache and clarity. Soloist Emily Marvosh, a dramatic contralto, lended heft and drama to the Christmas story. She outsang the rest of the ensemble, contributing elegant turns of phrase and grace to recitatives that often pass as filler. Baritone Woodrow Burnam shone in his aria “Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinnen” (llumine my dark thoughts) from BWV 248, and extended recitative “Wer so von innen” (Whoever from within) from BWV 179. Although tempi throughout the vocal solos for the lower voices seemed a bit rushed throughout the evening, the conclusion of Bynum’s recitative, a slower passage on the text “Bekenne Gott in Demut deine Sünden” (Humbly acknowledge your sins to God” showed us Bach’s more sensitive side. This moment, and the more relaxed approaches Christophers encouraged for the vocal duets and trios, provided moving contrasts to the explosive vigor that framed most larger works. Sopranos Sarah Yanovitch and Sonja DuToit Tengblad stood out for their varied vocal styles, contrasting pure, straight-tone sustained notes with vibrato and ornamentation for color. Mezzo-soprano Clare MacNamara’s rich timbre and expressive phrasing made her duet with Yanovitch the vocal highlight of the second half.
A Lutheran mass, one of several Latin-language works still sung in the otherwise German-speaking churches of Bach’s later years, concluded the evening. Setting the texts of the Kyrie and Gloria as a six-movement cantata supported by orchestra (with small portative organ and bassoon), Bach attempted to combine the Italian-sounding orchestral palette with the chorales and more restrained professional vocalism expected in the liturgical music of his time. His reflective Mass in G Major, BWV 236 constituted an unusual choice to end an otherwise dynamic program, but it afforded the audience more chances to hear Sheehan (in two fast arias that featured his high range) and a spectacular contribution by baritone Peter Walker: his warm voice and excellent diction (employing staccato singing in some of the melismatic passages) sailed through the auditorium.
A longtime advocate of new music, Prichard is a regular pre-opera speaker for the San Francisco Opera and Boston Baroque. She has taught courses on music and theater history at Northeastern University and UMass-Lowell.
H+H turned professional in 1967 after being founded as one of Boston’s first large mixed choruses. The first concert on Christmas of 1815, contrasted solo and choral movements in a diverse program, and the chorus became well-known for its large ensemble and subsequent re-orchestrations of eighteenth-century masterworks. As today, early seasons featured Handel’s Messiah, and the choir presented the American premiere of the full work in 1818. [described HERE]
The ensemble nurtures its historical roots, maintaining scrapbooks, press clippings, programs, business records, and other archival materials that shed light on Boston’s early music history HERE.
Several musicians from the professional orchestra (and their instruments) featur on the H+H website in short videos. A pre-concert lecture by Teresa Neff, who also contributed the excellent program notes and historical, preceded three period-instrument demonstrations (cello, oboe, and violin). Pairs of oboes d’amore and oboes da caccia, highlighted in the program and heard in the vocal music made notable additions to this concert. The muted, warm tones of the oboes da caccia paired perfectly with soprano voice and continuo in the soprano aria “Liebster Gott, erbarme dich” from BWV 179, sometimes overpowering the singer to create an equal three-voice texture that demonstrated Bach’s spectacular gift for evoking quiet pathos and sadness.
It’s appropriate that H+H returns to the late classical period each year, since the group tried to commission an oratorio from Beethoven, but the ensemble’s strength focuses on the florid, powerful polyphony demanded by Baroque masters such a J. S. Bach. Following the lead of Boston Baroque, America’s first period-instrument ensemble and contemporaneous developments in Europe, Hogwood re-focused H+H’s already professional orchestra into a professional period-instrument band in 1986. [more HERE]
The program repeats Sunday, September 30, 2018 at 3:00pm, and upcoming Fall events include “Every Voice” combining students in H+H’s Vocal Arts Program with professional members of the ensemble at First Church in Roxbury (Saturday, Nov. 3), and a virtuosic Schubert/Beethoven pairing with Robert Levin on fortepiano (Nov. 9/11 in Symphony Hall), as well as Baroque Christmas concertos featuring Nosky on violin in NEC’s Jordan Hall (Dec. 13/16).