Sometimes first impressions are deceiving, but in my experience, just as often they're spot-on. When I first heard Sir Roger Norrington (at left) conduct the Handel and Haydn Society, I commented the group had found "the perfect conductor for at least half its namesake composers," and my further encounters with Norrington's interpretations of Haydn (The Seasons, and now a third program, of the "Trauer" Symphony and the "Harmoniemesse" Mass) have only re-inforced that first response. Norrington's style is, yes, proudly idiosyncratic - and yet in some mysterious way, its wry classicism seems so appropriate to Haydn that the results feel not imposed, as a personal conducting style sometimes can, but instead like a revelation, and a nearly definitive one at that.
The juxtaposition of these two pieces, however, teased out a salient point about Norrington: he's more an orchestral than a choral conductor. Not that his work with the chorus in the "Harmoniemesse" was lackluster; it was, in general, quite fine - it simply wasn't at the impeccable peak that Harry Christophers brought the chorus to in this winter's Messiah. Perhaps this slight gap is really one of geography - Sir Roger is at his best when he focuses, in a direct, almost personal way, on the players before him (at times he looks almost like a kind of hypnotist) and the chorus is simply too far away, and too large a collective, for him to work his magic.
So it was unsurprising that the "Trauer" (or "Mourning") symphony proved the most exciting performance of the evening, while also demonstrating that Norrington isn't merely about frisky high spirits (although he did take the counterpoint of the finale at a thrilling clip). His reading of the celebrated Adagio - late in life Haydn asked that it be played at his own funeral - proved particularly moving, yet full of a sense of solace, not mourning.
The "Harmoniemesse" is a very different animal - mostly triumphal, yet seemingly infinite in its variety. Norrington shaped its various phases well, though I wouldn't say he actually unified them into a coherent whole; perhaps that's impossible (Norrington even paused between movements, as if to give them space). Still, the chorus sang with glorious color, and the soloists - Heidi Grant Murphy, Susan Platts, John McVeigh, and Robert Gleadow - sang with sympathy and power, although perhaps not always with the cleanest diction, or in exact alignment with the orchestra's lean classicism. My favorite of the group was mezzo Susan Platts, at left, who brought a rich, almost plaintive timbre to a pleasingly direct and honest phrasing - an intriguing complement to Norrington's eccentric, but utterly open and direct, conducting style.