Friday, May 6, 2011

Christophers, soloists, orchestra and chorus take a well-deserved bow.
Hub Review readers are no doubt getting a little bored with my continual praise of the Handel and Haydn Society. But if you were hoping that at last Harry Christophers and Co. had slipped up last weekend in their performances of Mozart's Requiem and Handel's Dixit Dominus, and that the critical monotony around here might finally be broken by a snarky little pan, I'm afraid I have to disappoint you: Harry & Co. were just as terrific as ever. Sorry!

Indeed, H&H (and the chorus in particular) has gotten so consistent of late that the only thing I wonder going into their concerts is: will the soloists measure up this time? Not quite all of them do, I'm afraid, although most of the line-up last weekend was splendid. Met power-bass Eric Owens, who recently triumphed as Alberich in the Met's new Das Rheingold, was on hand, as was rising lyric soprano Elizabeth Watts, who usually busies herself at Covent Garden or the Welsh National Opera, and who also boasted plenty of power, as well as a ravishing blush of radiant color. She was flanked by another rising British star, tenor Andrew Kennedy, who sang with passionate attack; the only slight gap in this luminous line-up was mezzo Phyllis Pancella, who had sumptuous tone but a lot of vibrato, and not quite enough volume to keep up with her cohorts.

But frankly, the chorus was the real star anyhow, particularly in Handel's Dixit Dominus, which I think many in the hall left feeling was the highlight of the program - and perhaps even a greater piece than the famous Requiem (sacrilege, I know, but I feel the Requiem is only truly brilliant in those passages we have complete from Mozart's own hand - the work was completed after his death by his student Franz Sussmäyr).  Dixit Dominus, by way of contrast, is thrilling throughout - indeed, its stern authority is pregnant with a sense of trembling foreboding only hinted at in the pronouncements of its text. And technically, it's almost stunningly complex - yet the H&H Chorus was always on point, both technically and emotionally (all the more remarkable given the urgent tempi favored by Christophers). Indeed, the solos from within the chorus - particularly those by Margot Rood, Teresa Wakim, and Woodrow Bynum - seemed as strong as anything we heard from the headliners. 

Judgment seems to have been on Mozart's mind, too, in the composing the Requiem, which in Christophers's hands rang more with warning than mourning, and which he also often took at a sometimes-blistering pace (for some sense of the committed connection this conductor brings to the stage, check out the photo at left). He slowed down, however, for some truly threatening moments in the Dies irae, while Owens triumphed in the forceful Tuba mirum and the string section broke the judgmental mood with a piercing rendition of the famous Lacrimosa.

These two titanic, back-to-back statements dominated the concert, but it would be wrong to ignore the beautiful pieces that filled out the program: Mozart's  Ave verum corpus, a short motet which I'd never heard before, but which was surpassingly lovely (with more exquisite work from the chorus), and the charming Por questa bella mano, which bass-baritone Eric Owens essayed with resonant feeling. As is sometimes the case in a period music concert, we also got to hear some unusual instrumentation - "basset horns" sang out during the Recordare of the Requiem, and  Por questa set Mr. Owens against an even deeper sound, that of the double bass obbligato - one of those early instruments you really think must have been designed by Dr. Seuss. Just watching bassist Rob Nairn attack this giant with his bow brought a sense of comedy to the performance that Owens seemed to eschew - which may have been just as well; somehow the contrast between the singer's sincerity and the player's struggles seemed wonderfully Mozartean all on its own.

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