Handel and Haydn shines under new artistic leader

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / January 30, 2010

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Mozart’s great Mass in C Minor was the chief offering on last night’s Handel and Haydn Society program, the prime destination toward which the rest of the evening pointed. Yet under the direction of Harry Christophers, some exceptionally lively music-making on the first half of the program made sure that Symphony Hall listeners could enjoy themselves along the way.

It was only the second program for Christophers as H&H’s newly installed artistic director, but it was clear that he was already placing his stamp on the quality of the choral performances. His conducting telegraphs a constant sense of motion, as if every phrase should be going some place in particular.

Last night’s program began with a strikingly dark-hued and richly textured account of Antonio Caldara’s “Crucifixus à 16’’ for chorus and organ, its expansive polyphony conjuring a vast sense of space. A crisp and lively traversal of Mozart’s “Venite Populi’’ followed, and so did excerpts from Act II of Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice.’’

The Gluck, in particular, found the orchestra in excellent form, dispatching this work as a kind of theatrically vital chamber music. Orfeo’s arrival at the underworld in search of his beloved sounded duly harrowing here, even if there were several spots that could have benefited from a more nuanced managing of dynamics and tone color. Iestyn Davies was the countertenor, singing with an appealing, pure voice and a poised delivery, though only a portion of Orfeo’s deep emotion, his wrenching interior drama, came across the footlights.

After intermission, Christophers led the H&H chorus and orchestra in a clear, articulate, and highly rewarding performance of the Mass in C Minor. The overall sound had sufficient heft and definition, yet this account felt light on its feet, solemn where called for, yet also theatrically vivid. The quartet of vocal soloists -- Gillian Keith, Tove Dahlberg, Thomas Cooley, and Nathan Berg -- were all capable, with Keith and Dahlberg particularly strong. The “Et incarnatus est,’’ the work’s most magical moment, in which the soprano soloist is exquisitely showcased with wind trio, was the highpoint, as of course it should be. The program repeats tomorrow afternoon in Symphony Hall.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at

HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY Harry Christophers, conductor

At: Symphony Hall, last night (repeats tomorrow)