IN: Reviews

H + H Keeps Tradition Alive with Harry

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Over the weekend the Handel & Haydn Society welcomed back Conductor Laureate Harry Christophers to Symphony Hall for its yearly portion of Mozart and Haydn. Predictable selections of those two composers capped the ends of event, but the addition of music from Hildegard von Bingen and Raffaella Aleotti gave the audience a rewarding exploration of nearly 700 years of composition.

Cheers greeted Christophers in recognition of his longstanding reputation in the organization as he came onstage for Haydn’s Symphony No.49, La Passione. The orchestra played standing with Harry dancing about the stage moving from instrument to instrument — as if his hands pulled the sounds from the strings. The orchestra played with great delicacy and blend, the sound melding into one cohesive voice. Haydn eloquently balances two oboes, bassoon, two horns, and strings while highlighting each section. The choice of having the players stand gave the performance an immediacy within the large hall … and it transcendentally brought us all back in time. Unbound by chairs, individual players moved and swayed bringing in unexpected visual portrayals. Some more kinetic than others, the sways, dips, and swoons became an uncomfortable indication of inconsistency within the sections. Among the more exaggerated movers, was Concertmaster Susanna Ogata; her beautifully sung tone led the violins, and her extravagant efforts in moving with the music made her co-conductor.

Each movement of the Haydn deserves a call of praise, notable moments include cellos in the Allegro di molto who brilliantly brought sudden shifts in characterization really driving the movement. The bassoon in Finale Presto skillfully maneuvered through the running staccato. Oboes in the Adagio attended to growth and color particularly on pedal notes.

Selections from Mozart’s Vesperae Solomnes de Confessore, and Mass in C Major, K.317, Coronation closed the ends of both halves. Performed in traditional seating arrangement, the two works are scored for choir, orchestra, and SATB soloist. The organization really shines here in their ensemble work. The two pieces revealed many smart and rewarding musical choices which show off Christophers’s understanding of phrasing and text, and Mozart’s inherent genius. There was great payoff in the Laudate Puerti in Mozart’s pairing the instrumental and vocal lines of the fugue, and then the countermelody between the choir and orchestra. H+H delivers it with great attention and gave a satisfying payoff. Then orchestra did great work fueling the mood of each movement, the energy of the vocal intentions being expounded by the players. The choir sang with good blend and clear diction. The balances among the voices wavered depending on the section, but they still delivered an overall clean traversal. Some particularly rewarding lines were sicut erat in procipioin the Dixit, and each of the ending amen’swhich rang out in the hall.

Soprano Joelle Harvey, mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston, tenor Aaron Sheehan, and bass-baritone Matthew Brook with the H+H Orchestra and Chorus (Robert Torres photos)

Of the two Mozart works, the Vesperae achived a higher polish. The Coronation Mass had little diversity from one movement to the next and had more mishaps. Mismatched vowels, little tempo contrast, and a loss of balance among vocal parts attributed to some of the less refined moments. Throughout the Coronation you could feel the unsettling of audience members as the interest started to lag. Gratefully, trumpeters Jesse Levine and Paul Perfetti brought a resurgence of energy and excitement in the Credo.

Handel + Haydn’s choral ensemble, comprising 34 professional singers, makes a great case for employing pros. While it is apparent the organization has a very specific idea of vocal timbre and quality and only employs a specific sound which they feel meets it early music philosophy – the choral aspect of the organization is clearly its strongest. Keeping in line with the idea of what an early music singer sounds like – the soloists for the evening Soprano Joélle Harvey, Mezzo Helen Charlston, Tenor Aaron Sheehan, and Bass-Baritone Matthew Brook, could have easily been plucked from the choir with the similarity in sound. While the combined efforts of the voices paid off in the ensemble, it unfortunately did not for our soloists. While the voices of Harvey and Brook rang the most, the overall balance was dismal. Even being near the front of the house, audience members strained to hear them, and complaints at intermission from audience members seated farther back grumbled in question at the comprehensibility of the soloists. Fortunately for them, this concert was being recorded, and with individual microphones being placed amidst their noses I’m sure sound production will be able to deliver a more balanced account.

Playing to the strength of the ensemble, the most convincing pairing came from Hildegard von Bingen and Raffaella Aleotti. Performed as one continuous movement, the segment of plainchant and motets alternated between the two composers. (O filie Israhel and Flos Campi by Hildegard. Vidi Speciosam and Surge Propera amica mea by Aleotti) According to the program notes, intentions of direct or indirect sacred, this portion looked to sound a bit out of place with its Haydn and Mozart, but that bold choice paid off here. The vocal timbre of the group shone in this set. It demonstrated how composers hear sound has really grown over the centuries. Even in an early music ensemble the timbral colors needed to sing Mozart versus the plainchant is apparent. This singing rose pure, direct, and thoughtful; it moved the choir into a church of stone and stained glass. That the composers met our maker is something transcendentally true.

The biggest and most deserved cheers rang for the choir and Harry Christophers. Handel + Haydn continues to top Boston’s early music pyramid.

Stephanie Beatrice is Music Director for the Cambridge Chamber Ensemble, Calliope, Sudbury Savoyards, and is a sought-after guest conductor. She holds degrees from UMaine (BME) New England Conservatory (MM) as well as continued studies at the Juilliard School.

 

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  1. Thank you for reporting “the overall balance was dismal”. I won’t add other adjectives, though dismal only begins to tell the tale.

    Comment by Will — February 26, 2024 at 8:31 pm

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