IN: Reviews

You-Know-What Ended H+H First Half

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Bracingly dancelike, and warmly festive, Handel and Haydn’s “Baroque Christmas” brought anticipatory repose to a full Jordan Hall last night, adventuring the advent of the holiday with nary a sharp elbow…that is until the ensemble of 3-3-2-1-1 strings (with Ian Watson leading from the harpsichord) astonished us with a fresh take on “Winter” from Vivaldi’s you know what. A thousand and one or more recordings of The Four Seasons have sought buyers on the basis of thwarting expectations, and this performance certainly brought unexpected and welcome qualities: a glisteningly wild and improvisatory ride.

The opening sounded otherworldly because of the short values on repeated notes, col legno tremolos, and tempo flexibility seemingly following the elegantly exciting lead of concertmaster Christina Day Martinson, here stepping out as a concerto diva. She commanded the stage with active engagement, an ability and willingness to dispatch cascades of rapidfire notes with clarity of articulation, perfections of vibratoless intonation, brilliant ornamentation, and total engagement; she harnessed the rest of the strings to clomp off on a communal icy sleighride without ever falling out of step. And we finally heard some clangorous excitement from Watson’s harpsichord. The hotly wintry first movement carried all away, leading to spontaneous cheers.

In “Winter’s” Largo middle movement, Martinson partnered innigly with violist Jenny Stirling. A teasing intensity to the expression contrasted as intended with the fast outer movements. Martinson began the closing allegro at a very slow tempo over a rather unpleasantly held-note on the organ. A pronounced accelerando ensued from the unharnessed forces, but flexibility of tempi prevented repeated-note relentlessness from setting in. An eruption of cheers announced this as the crowd’s favorite.

The H+H Youth Chorus, consisting of 39 apparently high-school-age members, had begun the 11-number concert with well-drilled and sonorous accounts of two seasonal villancicos by Gaspar Fernándes. Andrew Mine led Un relox á visto, a mystical vision of a clock without hands that “sustains heaven and earth.” Under Alyson Greer Espinosa, the very talented kids gave an arresting take on Xicochi, xicochi conetzintle. It began as a comforting lullaby but concluded with an affirming Alleluia.  And so said the 78 parents and the rest of us.

A tolling chime and somber cello solo with organ and continuo heralded the opening of Evaristo Felice Dall’Abaco Sinfonia in D Major, Op. 6, No. 12. Fast string figures, lively and well accented summoned up Vivaldi…and we enjoyed the echoing imitations. A dramatic and ceremonial Grave movement with darker drama provided needed contrast before fleet feats concluded the short sinfonia.

Because of the indisposition of baritone David McFerrin, the program was changed to allow his intended partner, soprano Teresa Wakim, to appear with three arias from Sebastian Bach. In Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen from the Christmas Oratorio, the singer and ensemble truly gathered us into what Watson had described as “…a spirit of joy with the warmth of togetherness.” Early on Watson drew a witty phrase-ending pause and generously provided interpretative space for oboist Deborah Nagy to interact and contrast quite pointedly with Wakim’s emphatically boyish midrange tones. Alexa Raine-Wright added her flute’s still, smooth voice to the warm ensemble. At times, the next work, Bereite dir, Jesu, (prepare the way) from Canata 147 conveyed awe, especially in Wakim’s melismas, but the awe morphed into  decorative wonder as Nagy’s oboe meandered so meaningfully with Wakim and Martinson. An aria with the same text, from Canata 132 closed the Bach set. The oboe came back with floridity. Wakim, now sounding a bit more warmed up into brighter tones, set forth, long-breathed coloratura runs over dancy delights and gentle sway from the band.

The six Noëls pour instruments of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s H.534 began with the noel we had heard earlier in the evening—this time with the addition of recorder, theorbo, transverse flute, and muffled snare drum—to ceremonial, courtly, and bucolic effect. A tambourine in the next number evoked street-corner carolers. A slow and poignant moment began with the cello almost sobbing. Martinson’s solo over harmonically rich accompaniment sounded almost Purcellian.  After another infectious tambourine-led dance number, the set concluded with an anticipatory advent carol that unfolded in a nostalgic quietude.

Teresa Wakim, Christina Day Martinson, and Ian Watson. (Robert Torres photo)

The amazing valveless trumpeter Steven Marquardt headlined Telemann’s Trumpet Sonata in D Major; he summoned the troops to very successful maneuvers with irresistible martial tone that none could gainsay. He commanded the registers of his instrument with equal authority. With lips like his, who needs valves?

The Scarlatti we heard in Cantata pastorale per la nascità di Nostro Signore was Allesandro—oh so very different from his son Domenico the author of 555 beloved keyboard sonatas. We give Watson the floor:

Scarlatti was one of the most prolific solo cantata composers, writing at least 600 such works over the course of his career. This dramatic multi-movement genre takes advantage of the convention of complementing recitatives (syllabic text settings with minimal accompaniment) with arias (ornate text settings with instrumental accompaniment). In his Cantata pastorale per la nascità di Nostro Signore, Scarlatti sets a text that does not tell a continuous story but follows a series of images. The first recitative addresses the town of Bethlehem directly; it connects with the subsequent aria through imagery centering on the heavens and the Star of Bethlehem. The text of the second recitative-aria pair relates the “icy rigors” of winter to humankind’s “harsh and bitter fate” before juxtaposing that image with the child lying in the manger. In the final recitative-aria pair, the text addresses the shepherds. To introduce the aria, Scarlatti writes a gentle pastorale for strings, featuring a beautifully flowing melody, a slow-moving bassline, and gently swaying rhythms. When the voice enters, it shares the melodic line with the violins in a seamless blending of voice and instruments that is a hallmark of Scarlatti’s writing.

Three recitatives and arias on the birth of Jesus gave Wakim another opportunity to hold the stage with Advent radiance. We particularly enjoyed her duet with Martinson which sounded more than a bit like Messiah as she sang, albeit in Italian, of shepherds abiding in the field.

The obscure Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello (1690–1758) based his Chaconne à 6 on a short, repeated bass line. Watson explains how the “…graceful, dancelike work for strings, with a multiplicity of musical ideas and moods becomes the perfect way to summarize both this concert and the holiday season.”  We experienced it as succession of pleasant but insouciant courtly dances wafting down from a musicians’ gallery, endlessly repeating with changes in ornamentation.

The players rewarded the final ovation (“Wasn’t that nice,” Watson wondered aloud) with a reprise of the first movement of the Trumpet Sonata…delivering even more excitement and speed.

The concert, H+H/s 2,624, will reprise on Sunday afternoon.

 Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

5 Comments »

5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I’ve been wondering for a while why, with their devotion to historically informed performance, H+H doesn’t use trebles and boy altos in sacred works by Bach.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — December 30, 2023 at 4:18 pm

  2. Perhaps because their devotion is more to the music than to the means by which it is made. Perhaps they are more interested in making the best music they can than in conforming to the caricatures that others have made of them.

    Comment by SamW — December 31, 2023 at 4:58 pm

  3. Within the past year or so at Symphony Hall, I’ve heard excellent singing by a boy soprano in a BSO concert. (I don’t recall the specific piece.) Think of the cantata recordings by Harnoncourt, Regensburger Domspatzen, etc. from several decades ago. Experience shows that properly trained male singers can perform the works well, as they did in Bach’s day and in the 20th Century.

    It’s not a question of asking H+H to conform to others’ “caricature,” whatever that may be. I’m suggesting that they try conforming to their own self-description.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — January 1, 2024 at 4:36 pm

  4. I’m sorry, I mistook your comment for a sneer at HIP. I shouldn’t have jumped to that conclusion. The caricature to which I refer is the one that characterizes all musicians and ensembles interested in historical performance practice as rigidly ideological, even though most of them are in pursuit of better-sounding music, not some chimera of authenticity.

    You are perhaps being a little too rigid yourself. If H&H doesn’t describe itself as dedicated to using only boys to sing Bach, then they aren’t being inconsisten in failing to do so. I’m sure you’re right that it can be done, but boy singers with the ability and training to sing Bach’s soprano and alto parts, especially the solo parts in his major works, are few and far between. They were probably not readily available to Bach either, but he had no alternative, and made do with what he had. It has been frequently noted that many of us have heard the St. Matthew Passion more times than he did, and know it better than his soloists did.

    A good statement of the intentions of HIP can be found in the notes of John Butt – as historically-informed a performer as one is likely to find – in the liner notes to his recording of the St. Matthew Passion, which, by the way, uses a total of eight singers, four men and four women:

    Trying to follow Bach’s vocal scoring and the instrumentation of his last
    performance is not done in the name of a sort of pious literalism that condemns
    every other approach to the realm of inauthenticity. It is rather an attempt
    to explore the possibilities for creative expression within a particular set of
    historical parameters (which can thereby become opportunities). These are thus
    very much the starting point for performance rather than the goal to which it
    is directed. In the event, historical details might begin to seem rather trivial if
    the performance reveals this work – coming from a relatively obscure venue in
    eighteenth-century Europe – to provide a musical experience that is almost on the
    threshold of what is emotionally bearable.

    – John Butt

    Comment by SamW — January 2, 2024 at 5:27 pm

  5. Just came across this on 13. Jan. Performance practices have ALWAYS been changing–for centuries, too. In my lifetime (I just turned 72) I’ve seen sea changes galore; to remember what Tom Dunn was like when he took over H&H almost 60 years ago. Not too many remember the leaden tempi used for Bach by the late romantic conductors, I once stumbled on a recording of Mengelberg, directing the 3rd Bach orchestral suite trudging along at a leaden pace rivalling molasses in January in Labrador–they did eventually finish but I had given up listening. Mengelberg was the last conductor to regularly NOT repeat the minuet AFTER a trio; this had been regular performing practice 130 years ago. (This explains why most Sousa marches are written March–Trio–End and rarely repeat the march after the Trio: 140 years ago that’s what everyone did–then.) Possibly tragically we may see yet a resurgence in castrati-type voices in a few years because of “transitioning” as an extreme opportunity for HIP. Yes, Historically Informed Performance is slowly spreading and we can expect to see HIP Stravinsky, or someone might recreate Sarah Caldwell’s opera productions as she was doing in the 1960’s–and HIP Elvis Impersonation is no longer just a joke (Mississippi Elvis vs. Vegas Elvis)! Someday someone might even revive a pre-1967 Gilday-led Ebenezer Prout Edition Messiah—just as H&H once did a Mendelssohn-era St. Matthew Passion (I passed it up–had to watch $$ in those days). OK, it will also depend on what the public pays for; right now HIP pays but the Baroque opera Boom did seem to be fading lately–along with everything else–and HIP may recede in future years just like the Romantics receded in my younger years. After all, the HIP of 2023 is different from the HIP of 1983 or even 1967!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — January 13, 2024 at 7:55 pm

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