Old music came to new life in Handel and Haydn Society weekend concerts of Martini’s Domine, ad Adjuvandum me Festina, Wranitzky’s Symphony in D Minor, La Tempesta, and Beethoven’s Eroica at Symphony Hall.
Largely unknown today, Moravian-Austrian composer Paul Wranitzky was a respected and well-known composer in late-18th-century Vienna. The Society’s decision to program Wranitzky next to Beethoven is an admirable form of progressive historiography that resurrects new voices even within its Baroque through Classical purview. Moreover, H+H’s period instruments make old music new to our modern ears.
The H+H Youth Chorus briefly joined in for Domine, ad Adjuvandum me Festina with Kevin J. McDonald conducting. It unfolds as a swirling gyroscope folding on top of itself before a final collective amen calms the storm and brings it to a close. With simultaneous independent and overlapping parts taking primacy over the strings, it placed great demands on the chorus. The youth singers commendably maintained clarity, balance, and emotional vigor throughout. A few soloist parts exposed minor struggles with intonation, likely due to doubling, but as a group the choristers excelled with professionalism beyond their years.
Václav Luks took back the baton for the Wranitzky and conducted the rest of the concert. His emotive, passionate, and Romantic style helped make Wranitzky’s “tempest” appropriately tempestuous. The symphony opened with a furious unison ascension of a D-minor triad and maintained heightened drama throughout the first movement, foreshadowing the tempest of the third movement. The first movement unfolded in textbook sonata-allegro form with the exposition being in D minor, the development surprisingly being in B-flat major rather than the expected relative F, but the Luks nevertheless maintained control within Classical-era HIP.
The second movement of the Wranitzky transitioned to D major and 6/8 time with a focus on sparse string textures; winds added melodic solos later. Emi Ferguson on flute proved the highlight of these wind features, often leading either melodically or transitionally with a clear euphonic tone.
The focus, however, centered on the third and final movement, where the tempest became unleashed. For the finale, the bass drum joined the party, adding, as well, a whistle that produced a seemingly diegetic wind noise. While gimmicks such as these perhaps undermined the emotional potential of the work, the orchestra did well to lean into the fun and drama of the spiraling tempest while still holding restraint and control.
Beethoven’s Eroica held the night’s spotlight. The fun gimmicks and exciting newness of La Tempesta were nowhere to be found, of course, in the colossal masterwork. Does it need to be said that the period instruments produced a more restrained and controlled texture and volume than one would expect from a large modern orchestra? And the transparency from the piquant and small forces exposed each note to critique, especially in a piece as ubiquitous as the Eroica. Textural balance obtained throughout the majority of the work, but the very occasional intonation issue would appear before being quickly rectified. And impressive renditions of exposed excerpts always followed such slight imperfections. The forces picked up steam as the piece progressed, and the third and fourth movements carried the day. Oboist Debra Nagy stood out for her heart-wrenching solo in the second movement. In both the Scherzo and Finale the ensemble’s immaculate execution and grand, but restrained, passion stood out.
The historical Handel and Haydn Society’s pairing of Wranitzky and Beethoven usefully spotlights undeservedly obscure musical voices with its full seriousness of purpose.