Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Handel and Haydn crown Wakim

George II at his coronation, for which Handel composed Zadok the Priest
The weekend before last (yes, I'm that late with this!) the Handel and Haydn Society had almost everything required for a grand concert - in fact the program was bursting with some of choral music's greatest hits (with something by Handel and something by Haydn; Mozart was also along for the ride).  What's more, the program, dubbed "Coronation," boasted a loose kind of theme, if you will; proclamations of benevolent power were to be heard over and over again, in various keys and modes.

There was only one thing missing.

A soprano.

For Rosemary Joshua, the concert's headliner, had dropped out of the concert only nine days earlier.   But luckily the Society could turn to its own secret weapon, soprano Teresa Wakim (below), who has long sung as a featured soloist in the Society's chorale.  Knowing that she had to come back a star, this chorus girl stepped calmly and confidently into Joshua's shoes for Mozart's famous Exsultate, jubilate, K. 165, as well as the Mass in C Major, K. 317 ("Coronation").  And she left the stage crowned, I think, an audience favorite.

Although at first Wakim's grip on the vocal throne wasn't entirely secure, I admit.  Her low notes are lovely, but lack a certain power, and in the opening of Exsultate, jubilate she struggled slightly against the fullness of the orchestration behind her.   But her upper register is her glory, and once Wakim could climb there, the glowing pearl of her tone, matched with crisp diction and a remarkably graceful agility (even in Mozart's fleetest passages) charmed the audience utterly.

She was just as strong in the Coronation Mass, although I have to say I find this particular stretch of Mozart not entirely compelling; its grand confidence grows bland to me; its Kyrie is not a plea but a command, and its Credo a happy but rather long march.  Still the Benedictus and Agnus Dei are worth waiting for - and Wakim was if anything more dazzling here than she had been earlier.  She was joined by alto Paula Murrihy and baritone Sumner Thompson - both also refugees from the H&H chorus, as well as tenor Thomas Cooley, who together made up one of the best-matched sets of soloists I can recall in some time at H&H; the only problem was that Mozart doesn't give his alto or baritone much to do (and as I'm a big fan of Thompson, I found this particularly disappointing).

The chorus matched their usual high standard throughout the Mass, and were actually quite stunning in the famous Zadok the Priest, composed by Handel for the coronation of George II (who, in the rather fatuous portrait above, hardly looks worthy of its heroic blast).  The piece has been played at every coronation since, and the way H&H sings it, you understand why.

I've been dwelling on the vocal aspects of this performance, but actually the concert was a carefully programmed balance of choral and orchestral music - likewise focused on a sense of grand, royal occasion. The busy "Arrival of the Queen of Sheba" always seems to me to have been mis-titled (it feels more like "Just Before the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba" - you can almost hear servants scampering throughout).  Under Christophers' baton, the orchestra's playing was appropriately lightly pointed, but not, it seemed, focused on any particular interpretive objective.

But Haydn's Symphony No. 85 in B-flat Major, dubbed La Reine as it was a reported favorite of Marie Antoinette, proved another matter entirely.  Here what I expected to be another light entertainment all but sparkled with attentive insights; Christophers kept things brisk, but even his final Presto also seemed to me to brim with surprising emotional depth.  The strings sounded superb, but were more than matched by the winds, particularly in a Menuetto which seemed almost breathtakingly perfect.  Wakim took the audience laurels at this particular concert, but perhaps the most deeply satisfying musical performance of the evening came from the orchestra in this ravishing interpretation; to crown the season, the H&H orchestra here sounded as good as, or better than, they ever have.

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