Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Haydn on high

The Collegium Vocale Gent.

You could argue that Haydn should always be heard in church; there's a true piety in this great composer that seems most at home in a chapel, so the First Congregational Church in Cambridge, with its golden Romanesque vaults, should have been the perfect site for last weekend's Boston Early Music Festival concert, "The Haydn Songbook," by Collegium Vocale Gent (above) and fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout.

Yet while those gorgeous arches gloriously support the timber of the human voice, they often muddy its diction - and can even swallow the reedy vocalise of the fortepiano. Thus "The Haydn Songbook" sometimes did battle with its setting; it won out in the end, or at least settled for a luminous, satisfying draw, but some smaller skirmishes were definitely lost along the way. Kristian Bezuidenhout, one of the most exciting fortepiano players alive, probably has the largest score to settle with that sacred architecture. His readings of four Haydn keyboard pieces were dazzling in interpretive terms; as usual, he played with sensitive spontaneity and a sparkling, idiosyncratic attack that violated the convention but never the content of the music. But only his take on the famously haunting "Variations in F minor" achieved the kind of passionate crescendo he regularly reaches in performance; taking inspiration from the fact that the two sonatas he essayed were probably written for the clavichord, Bezuidenhout played them so gently that they all but disappeared in the high space of the sanctuary.

This was never true of the soaring sound of the Collegium Vocale Gent, which is one of the leading early music choruses of the world - still, they didn't seem to compensate in their diction the way, say, Boston Secession does, for the echoing presence of their venue (it didn't help, of course, that they were singing German). On the other hand, the vaults above burnished their twelve voices to an even richer resonance than they no doubt already had, and it was hard to fault a few blurred consonants when the tones of the chorus were themselves so beautifully balanced and ravishing.

And surprisingly, Bezuidenhout and his singers seemed to fit hand in glove (even though the Collegium is usually directed by Philippe Herreweghe). Sometimes, it's true, the lighter ditties (such as the drinking song "There is a time for everything," or the ruefully droll "Harmony in Marriage") came off as sacred music, but the group's witty take on the amusing "Eloquence" drew honest laughs from the audience, and elsewhere Bezuidenhout and the Collegium struck just the right note of luminous poignancy. Most of the "songbook" came from the end of the Haydn's life, and reflected his disappointments, his slowly failing health, and in general the weight of his accumulated experience. But the melodies still glowed with the humble faith that makes Haydn so deeply touching - and, simply put, they were utterly gorgeous. Alas, they were also interspersed with selections from a simulated "diary" of Haydn's, delivered by radio personality Rhod Sharp; the readings were inoffensive, but also felt somehow unnecessary; biographical notes or perhaps excerpts from the composer's actual letters might have been a better choice. But all was forgiven during such songs as the famous "Abendlied zu Gott" ("Evening Song to God"), which is perhaps the loveliest hymn ever written. Here it got both an exquisite first reading and a radiant encore, which hung in the air like a benediction over its listeners. It was hard to pretend at such moments that Bezuidenhout and the Collegium Vocale Gent hadn't put Haydn on high despite the odds.

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