Why will I always recommend the Handel and Haydn Society’s concerts to my friends, even if they may not think classical music’s their favorite? The answer is pretty simple: I know the period-instrument orchestra is almost definitely going to give its all to whatever it’s doing. Its takes on Baroque and early Classical period music are consistently fresh and vital, and if something doesn’t hit the mark, it’s usually because someone tried for too much of a good thing.
On Sunday afternoon at Symphony Hall, the second of two performances of the ensemble’s season-opening all-Bach concert started out with too much speed. With artistic director Harry Christophers conducting, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major took off at a breakneck pace. Brisk Brandenburgs are thrilling, but savoring the accents and harmonic interplay was nearly impossible at that speed, and the players sounded out of sync at some points. Perpetually fabulous concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky spun out a songful solo in the brief slower movement, but the final Allegro pushed things even faster. Up next, the beginning of Cantata V from “Christmas Oratorio” also felt a bit clipped and rushed, but the ensemble then settled into a solid groove and stayed in that zone for the rest of the concert.
Tenor Aaron Sheehan, a local early-music mainstay, was a featured soloist in the program’s three vocal works. His splendid instrument powered up through high notes with no perceptible sonic bushwhacking. even when improbable German clusters of consonants lay in his path. He excelled at text painting, playing the street-corner zealot in Cantata 179, “Siehe zu, daβ deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei” with its fiery recitative and aria railing against hypocrisy.
The chorus was unimpeachably excellent as usual, and singers from its ranks filled out the rest of the concert’s soloist roles. Baritone Woodrow Bynum offered a compelling aria replete with vocal gymnastics in duet with oboe d’amore, and Emily Marvosh’s luminous contralto voice glorified all it touched.
The Concerto for Two Violins, performed without a conductor, was an exhilarating experience. Nosky and assistant concertmaster Susanna Ogata each stood at the fore of a wing of violins and faced off. If they weren’t having the times of their lives up there, they were doing a great job faking it. Nosky’s sound was more sprightly and light, Ogata’s more vehement and earthy, and the dynamic duo’s star turn was bolstered by smart accenting and danceable rhythms from the rest of the strings and continuo.
At the end, the Mass in G Major felt like coming home. Christophers expertly manipulated the sound balance between the chorus and orchestra; it perpetually shifted and sparkled, with different sections rising to the fore and receding. As baritone Peter Walker delivered a commanding, burnished aria, Christophers was visibly mouthing the words along, right in the thick of it.
HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY
At Symphony Hall, Sunday afternoon.Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.