Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A mostly magnificent Magnificat from Handel & Haydn

Detail from Botticelli's Madonna of the Magnificat
I'd been looking forward to the Handel and Haydn season opener - a Bach orgy focused on the Magnificat - because artistic director Harry Christophers is a Bach fanatic, and the program had been cannily designed to draw in the crowds (with "Air on a G String," and "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring"), while showcasing some worthy rareties (particularly Cantata 71, Gott ist mein König).

So last Friday Symphony Hall was packed - with an audience, as a few other critics have begun to note, younger and more diverse than most.  And thank Gott, the performance did not disappoint.

But it didn't quite astound me, either.  Indeed, to be honest, it seemed to me that Christophers' vision of "the greatest composer who ever lived" (his own words) never quite came into focus - or rather it moved in and out of focus over the course of the evening.

Which puts me in that tricky position I'm famous for: I'm that critic who first makes a fuss over artistic greatness, and then later, when everybody else shows up to applaud, begins finding fault.  So let me say I'm thrilled that Handel and Haydn is finally getting the credit it has long deserved - even, at last, positive reviews in the Globe!  (Proof that everyone got the memo.)  But I was still slightly surprised by a few of the raves this concert received.  Christophers' special genius was often in evidence, and both the chorus and the orchestra at their best were beyond superb.  But as I've said before, they're simply the best chorus in the region (so by now I expect to be stunned); yet Friday's opener wasn't their best night; there were more than a few moments (particularly around entrances) that simply weren't as clean as they could/should have been (and that's important, particularly in Bach).

This was true in the strings as well, here and there (the winds were at their frisky best, however, throughout); more problematic was that Christophers drew all his soloists from the chorus itself - and alas, didn't really reveal any new stars there.  All of these fresh faces were blessed with intriguing vocal timbres and subtle control (that's why it's a great chorus) - but a few seemed a bit uncomfortable in the limelight, or lacked the power to fully command a space the size of Symphony.

Still I was grateful as always to hear H&H's secret weapons, soprano Teresa Wakim and alto Emily Marvosh.  Wakim, of course, is a known quantity, and she was at the top of her game Friday, hitting the lustrously pearly notes she's famous for with ease, first in Cantata 71 and later in the Magnificat.  Marvosh, in contrast, is still making her mark - although you could argue after last weekend that she has made her mark.   She was in fine voice from the start, but only grew suppler and more expressive as the evening went on, while her physical presence has never been more striking - a charming, almost mischievous gamine, she seemed to morph the Virgin into Diana, and radiated intelligent joy throughout her contributions to the Magnificat.  I have a hunch that, like Wakim, she's a great actress as well as a great singer.

Harry Christophers in action.
There were also some strong turns from reliable tenor Stefan Reed, and bass Jacob Cooper had his moments - but elsewhere the solos were variable.  As I've opined before, the central artistic problem at H&H these days is finding a team of soloists who can stand up to the chorus (perhaps even the chorus can't do that!).  Luckily, they've signed up for Messiah this year the stunning Karina Gauvin, who may be the greatest interpreter of Handel on the planet - if she can't match this chorale, no one can.

On the instrumental side, it seemed to me the horns scraped a bit more than usual (although this is inevitable with natural horns), particularly in the opening overture of the Orchestral Suite No. 3, where they're particularly exposed, and playing high in their ranges.  All this was forgotten, however, in Harry's ravishing rendition of what came next, that famous "Air on a G String," which here swelled with a slow, delicate suspense, and heartbreaking transparency.  In a word: rapture.

Later there were more high points, particularly from Wakim and Marvosh, in the relatively light  Gott ist mein König, which is not actually sacred music but was rather composed as a kind of fanfare for the town council of Mühlhausen - and which seemed to dovetail nicely with the previous buoyant dances that closed the Orchestral Suite.  Less convincing perhaps was the way Christophers pulled together  two Sinfonias and "Jesus bleibet meine Freude" into his own "suite" later in the program. But then to be honest, Bach suites are never very unified anyway, and the Sinfonia from Cantata 18 featured some truly exquisite interplay between the violas and the winds (Christophers always illuminates the structure of what he's doing, even as he makes it dance).  Certainly "Jesus" was as transporting as it should be, with the chorus seemingly buoyed on soft surges from the strings that glinted with colors from the brass.

The trumpets were in even better form during the Magnificat itself - a compact work with the range of a full symphony, the many moods of which unfolded with Christophers' characteristic mix of eloquence and passion.  Once more Wakim and Marvosh were the stand-out soloists, the winds were again delightful, and the chorus shouldered the closing verses with astonishing power and clarity.  I admit whenever these folks sing a line like "World without end, Amen," I always find myself indeed wishing the moment could go on forever.

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