Handel and Haydn Society captured all of this and then some with a vigorous, focused performance that was a marvel of controlled fury.
By Jonathan Blumhofer.
One of the challenges facing classical music ensembles is the perpetual need to present programs that feature the canons of the standard repertoire in ways that are thought provoking, artistically interesting, and musically satisfying. Approaching this conundrum head-on, this weekend the Handel and Haydn Society (H&H) presented a wonderfully planned and vigorously executed juxtaposition of three lesser-known, eighteenth-century symphonies (by, respectively, Henri-Joseph Rigel, Joseph Martin Kraus, and Franz Josef Haydn) paired with one that defines the genre for the period (by Mozart). Bernard Labadie conducted.
Though he’s not widely known today, Henri-Joseph Rigel was a major figure in French music before and after the Revolution who was particularly regarded for his operatic works. His Symphony in C minor opened the program and is clearly the music of a composer who knew the theater: its fast, outer movements are filled with visceral tension and energy, while the lyrical, second movement unfolds with a beautiful sense of melodic and dramatic pacing.
H&H captured all of this and then some with a vigorous, focused performance that was a marvel of controlled fury. Especially in the first movement, where there are echoes (or, more accurately, anticipations) of the corresponding movement in Mozart’s Symphony no. 25, the ensemble profiled the shape of the music’s expressive trajectory in bold brushstrokes while also managing to bring out some of the subtle details in the string writing. The slow movement, in which Rigel eschewed the German stylistic models of the outer movements for something far more elegantly French in character, was lovingly realized, especially the central duet between oboes and strings.
Joseph Kraus is another composer who is now something of a footnote in music history, though in his day he was sometimes referred to as the “Swedish Mozart.” Indeed, some similarities between the two are positively eerie, not least of which are their lifespans: both were born in 1756, and they died within a year of each other.
Kraus’s Symphony in E minor is a three-movement symphony that, like the Rigel, embraces the Sturm und Drang sensibilities of the era, though with a bit less intensity than the previous work. What it may lack in turmoil, though, it makes up for with a surprising amount of charm and directness: each movement has an unfussy concision that is positively refreshing.
The performance Mr. Labadie drew from H&H was equally straightforward and natural, filled with a gracefulness that was never threatened by some of the music’s darker impulses.
Darker impulses are quite present in Haydn’s Symphony no. 26, subtitled Lamentatione due to the incorporation of an Easter chant into the work’s first two movements. This is a piece that has in common with the program’s earlier works a certain straightforward purpose and the expressive extremes characteristic of the period. However, Haydn’s utilization of the chant tune is quite novel, prefiguring composers from Berlioz and Mahler to Miaskovsky and Prokofiev.
And each of the tune’s iterations across the Symphony’s first two movements sound peculiar, blending in unexpected ways with Haydn’s Classical stylistic language. Friday’s performance featured some particularly fine horn and wind playing in the first movement and a haunting realization of the second—if you want to hear perhaps the earliest foreshadowing of the slow movement of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, look no further. The third and final movement, a minuet and trio, allows the piece to expire in a totally curious (and Haydnesque) way; anything else would feel wrong.
After intermission, Mr. Labadie and H&H returned with the most familiar piece on the program, Mozart’s Symphony no. 41. Written roughly 20 years after the symphonies on the first half and subtitled Jupiter sometime after Mozart’s death, it’s a piece that sums up the Classical symphony and is a Labadie specialty. Friday’s combined forces pulled out all the stops in a performance that was filled with life and radiated light.
If any single work can be credited with shifting the dramatic focus of the symphony from the first movement to the last, it’s this one, with the quasi-fugal coda in its finale. But there are other ways in which Mozart pointed a way towards the Romantic incarnation of the genre, too: the slow second movement is an extraordinary essay in melodic development and variation, while the grand opening of the first movement bears striking similarities to Beethoven’s Eroica and was later echoed by Schumann and Brahms (among others).
On Friday, Mozart the Progressive was on full display in a performance that—like the others—never shied away from emphasizing expressive extremes or from projecting the many interesting colors of his orchestration. I have rarely heard the third movement minuet unfold with more of a natural, through-composed quality, while the finale brought the program’s symphonic survey to a majestic conclusion.
The concert opened with a performance by the excellent H&H Young Women’s Chorus, one of the ensembles that are part of H&H’s extensive educational outreach program. Celebrating their 15th season this year, they performed a single selection on Friday: Johann Adolf Hasse’s short “Benigne fac, Domine” from the Miserere in C minor. Theirs was a performance marked by crisp diction and bright, incisive energy. If intonation flagged slightly around the movement’s midpoint, the closing “Gloria Patri” blossomed into lofty, billowing waves of sound that bode well for what was to come throughout the remainder of the evening.