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24.2.16

Handel and Haydn Society, Still Kicking

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Haydn, The Creation, Handel and Haydn Society, H. Christophers
(CORO, 2015)
The Handel and Haydn Society is still around. In fact, the group celebrated its 200th anniversary last year and marked that achievement with a concert on Saturday night at the Library of Congress. In the ongoing takeover of American choral institutions by British choirmasters, Harry Christophers, founder of The Sixteen, has led the organization since 2009. The program offered here, ranging from Gregorian chant to a new piece commissioned from Gabriela Lena Frank, aimed to prove that the group, now reduced to twenty-some singers, has expanded beyond the stylistic boundaries implied by its name.

The quality of voices heard varied, with excellent solo contributions here and there, especially from soprano Margaret Rood, heard in pieces by minor composers like James Kent (1700-1776) and Thomas Linley (1756-1778), from the Society's 1823 music publication The Old Colony Collection of Anthems. Tenor Stefan Reed gave a gorgeous rendition of William Byrd's tear-soaked lament on the death of his beloved teacher, Thomas Tallis, ending with the poignant lines, "Tallis is dead, and Music dies." A quartet, led by Rood on soprano, gave an elegant performance of the "Agnus Dei" movement from Byrd's Mass for Four Voices, skilfully layering all those aching suspensions in the "Dona nobis pacem" section.


Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, America’s oldest ensemble offers a taste of the new (Washington Post, February 22)

Steve Smith, Handel and Haydn holds a night of festivity and history (Boston Globe, November 24, 2015)
The results were not as felicitous in the choral performances, with a lack of unity in the male voices especially, noted right from the opening of the first piece, the plainsong hymn Veni creator spiritus. The balance of voices was uneven in Renaissance selections by William Byrd, but there was plenty of volume for the climaxes of Gabriela Lena Frank's My angel, his name is freedom. The chorus seemed the most confident on two double-chorus motets by Bach, although the fast tempos chosen by Christophers in Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied required the sacrifice of some clarity in the melismatic passages. Given the considerable intonation and ensemble woes of the string players in this performance, two pieces for strings by Purcell should have been omitted from the concert entirely.

4 comments:

Unknown said...

I had never heard the "Singet dem Herrn" motet done with continuo instruments. Do you know whether that is an authentic J.S.Bach alternative to the a cappella? It was an exciting performance, but it seemed a bit like a Bach motet with training wheels.

Milton Grossman

Charles T. Downey said...

Bach indicated no instruments in the score and did not put figures under either of the bass parts. So it is "authentic" to perform it without continuo, but it was not uncommon, from the Renaissance on, to accompany vocal polyphony with instruments, either doubling the voices or later by adding a continuo instrument or two. So that would be "authentic," too. I have heard the piece done both ways and do not object either way.

jfl said...

Recordings are split almost down the middle, with and without continuo. (Some with a lot, some with minimal and the rest without... probably less than half, actually, judging by what I've come across.) Incidentally, I find that they are even prettier, certainly easier digestible, with continuo.

This Dip Your Ears post compares six different version with audio examples and might be of interest:

Dip Your Ears, No. 133 (Bach Motets)
http://ionarts.blogspot.com/2013/04/dip-your-ears-no-133-bach-motets.html

Unknown said...

Thank you both for those enlightening comments.

Milton Grossman