In the latter part of Friday night’s concert at Jordan Hall, the Handel and Haydn Society attained a rarefied sublimity, as countertenor Reginald Mobley, in absolutely gorgeous voice, and relaxed of manner, imbued “Cara Sposa” from Handel’s Rinaldo, HWV 7 with heartfelt engagement. In the lovliest parts of his tessitura, and with astonishing breath control, he projected long, shapely phrases with steadiness and perfection of intonation and ornamentation over a range from the most ravishing sotto voce to room-filling ffs. After an extended fugal intro in the upper strings, the aria opens with a two and one half-measure floated Caaaaaaaa…ra on b1, which on this night began at the threshold of audibility and slowly swelled with amazing inevitability into an emphatic forte. In the first instance Mobley projected with stately, but hand-on-heart simplicity. In the da capo, he added ornamentation that not only astonished with its fluidity, but also felt emotionally true. Last night the heavens and the assembled throng recognized the genius of this moment.
At the concert’s conclusion Mobley turned to Purcell for a restful and consoling encore, “Now that the sun hath veil’d his light,” An Evening Hymn upon a Ground, fronting an exquisitely sensitive and hyper responsive continuo group (Ian Watson at the box organ, along with theorboist Brandon Acker, and cellist Guy Fishman). The 12 other players stood in silent awe.
Purcell also opened the evening, beginning with some numbers from The Gordian Knot Untied. This gave us our first exposure to violinist/conductor Rachel Podger. In the Overture, as throughout the concert, she drew a very smooth and refined sound from the players. They showed themselves alert to her rhythmic cues, sometimes delivered in stabbing gestures of her bow. She also danced and jumped about the stage in an infectiously cajoling manner. Speed and accuracy were a given from this experienced and well-prepared band, but pathos absented itself (except when Mobley upped the ante and in oboist Debra Nagy’s later Handelian Concerto Grosso star turn). We are used to hearing molten emotion in this overture since we first experienced in a pre-HIP interpretation for Jose Limon’s “The Moor’s Pavane.” More time and savor should come across. Consider this version.
The first half also interpolated a couple of Purcell songs, “O Solitude, my sweetest choice,” Z. 406, and “Here the Deities Approve” from Welcome to All the Pleasures, Z. 229, which Mobley put across with his patented panache, though in these rangy songs his register break to a gorgeous tenor sometimes proved distracting.
Who among us had heard of freed African slave Ignatius Sancho (1729–1780)? Podger wrote, “… through unimaginable pain, struggle, and hardship of his enslaved life, joy endures in Sancho’s music.” What a salutary story of redemption the music and the famous Gainsborough portrait tell. From the simple original materials, composer, harpsichordist, Nicola Canzano artfully improved a suite of minuets, gavottes, airs, songs, and a hornpipe into modern orchestral dress. Might we have heard one or two of these instead in the original two-line harpsichord or violin/viola version? In any case, the performances put us all in a party mood, banishing for a time any metaphysical thoughts. We would like to have met the Duchess of Devonshire, because her namesake reel certainly jived. And Mobley’s traversal of Sancho’s song “Friendship is the Source of Joy” limpidly relegated Cupid to a supporting role.
Handel’s Concerto à 5 in B-flat Major, his only such for solo violin, begins with soloist and continuo. According to annotator Teresa Neff, “That texture quickly changes as the other strings join in and exchange passages with the soloist. The Andante is a short chord progression that allows the soloist to improvise and leads directly into the Allegro.” In this outing, Podger’s tone failed to project satisfyingly except in her cadenza and when partnering with continuo. Perhaps by Sunday afternoon’s performance, she can find the means to quiet and shape the tutti…or to play out more.
Podger sealed the deal with the H+H Baroque Orchestra in a signal account of Handel’s Concerto Grosso in F Major, HWV 315. The beautiful sonorities and accomplished execution came across like a polished studio CD with fierce fearlessness, in-the-moment risk taking, and lighter-than air, en-pointe dancing. And once again we salute the winds, especially the noble oboist Debra Nagy and her standmate Gaia Saetermoe-Howard.
Repeats at Jordan Hall on Sunday afternoon at 3:00
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer