Handel and Haydn Society Perform Couperin and Bach

Handel and Haydn Society

Paul Goodwin, Conductor

New England Conservatory, Jordan Hall

February 27, 2009

Stereophiles have ruined music as I love it.

The plight of modern instruments is no secret: keyboards and violins are tending towards brighter, more stereo-friendly sounds, preferring Billy Joel or Elton John to the brassy Horowitz Steinway, or the electric violin to the lyrical Heifetz Stradivarii. Or, even earlier — Beethoven’s second Quasi una Fantasia piano sonata (the Moonlight) asks the pianist to depress the suspension pedal for the entire C-sharp minor first movement: a complete mess on the modern piano but a fine reality on Beethoven’s boxier nineteenth century model. Earlier still, consider Bach’s famous D minor chaconne from the second partita, in which Bach’s violin’s shallower bridge and arced baroque bow could simultaneously pull triple stops without breaking the chord — an almost-impossibility on the modern violin.

It’s these archaic instruments and sounds that brought Friday evening’s concert with the Handel and Haydn Society, playing works by Couperin, Bach and Purcell under conductor Paul Goodwin, to life. To be sure, the thin, nasal strings, the tinny harpsichord, and the quacking woodwind section of the baroque orchestra aren’t the most marketable of sounds, and these instruments are painfully difficult to play. The baroque cello lacked an endpin and is squeezed between the thighs in order to be played, horns, almost exclusively, lacked valves and were modulated solely by changing omberture, not to mention the fretted theorbo, which, even at no less than seven feet in length, is held like a guitar.

But baroque music was written for these instruments, and it is a sound, despite its near-cacophony, that I love.

Goodwin showed exactly how these pieces were supposed to sound. François Couperin’s Concert dans le goût Théâtral practically shimmered in the Handel and Haydn Society’s performance. Although tuning issues between the cello and woodwind section marred early portions of the performance and balance issues sometimes obfuscated the counterpoint early on in the piece (perhaps more a function the space of Jordan Hall than any fault of the ensemble), Friday’s performance of Couperin’s work had the air and excitement of jazz; melodic lines were traded with an almost natural facility; ornamentation and French affect were fluid and were performed by members of the ensemble with the polished ease of seasoned improvisers. Of particular note, however, were instruments that were often in the background of the more complicated work: Robert Nairn frequently seemed to be on the verge of snapping his bass in two during the more vehement movements. Michael Sponseller too, although appropriately demure during the more reserved movements, effectively drove the harpsichord home in his fantastic stormy interpretations of figured bass during the faster movements.

Goodwin also led the ensemble in a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048. Before performing the work, Goodwin announced that the first movement would be an alternate form of the concerto, one that Bach reworked for the overture of his Cantata BWV 184 Erwünschtes Freudenlicht (historical accounts suggest that the Margrave of Brandenburg, Christian Ludwig, for whom the six concerti were first composed, was less than disinterested in the works upon receiving them — reusing the work was a mere practicality for Bach, who was charged with writing a new cantata for every week of the church calendar during his tenure as Thomaskantor in Leipzig) that added oboes and, in Goodwin’s own words, “screaming horns”. Friday’s performance lacked the screaming horns, maintaining the oboes, which was little more than nuisance (I lie: ornamentation in the oboes during the minor re-transition to the shaggy G major recapitulation left me panting for breath).

It was curious that, even in such an exciting performance, Goodwin felt the need to add novelty to the standard repertoire. The performance continued to amaze: Daniel Stepner improvised the Phrygian cadence of the second movement (albeit ending on a slightly sour chord) and the conclusion of the final movement of the concerto required no less than three rounds of applause from the audience. Although not the cleanest of renditions of Bach’s famous work, the ensemble more than made up for their lack of accuracy with a natural excitement that pervaded the entire performance.

The argument, if I understand correctly, is that the English composer, Henry Purcell, was an integrator of French, Italian, and English influences because he was imitating composers such as Jean-Baptiste Lully and Fraçoise Couperin, Italian masters such as Monteverdi and Gesualdo, and continuing the choral tradition of the English composers Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. Purcell is also considered an innovator because of his novel use of the countertenor voice (creating castrati were considered a barbaric practice by the almost-entirely Protestant English).

None of these seem like particularly good reasons to ascribe the level of genius that often accompanies the composer. Purcell was writing music in the late seventeenth century while his Italian and English forebears had developed their signature styles nearly a century prior, and Friday’s concert aptly revealed that although Purcell was a near contemporary of Lully and Couperin, the French were producing more sophisticated works of music, especially when compared to the English master.

Sandwiched between Couperin’s Concert dans le goût Théâtral and Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto, Purcell’s Funeral Sentences, composed for octet, seemed like a cruel joke. To his credit, Purcell’s work was not without some merit ­— in true English form, Purcell’s anthem incorporated and developed the rich chromaticism and use of cross-relation that were characteristic of his Elizabethan predecessors, Tallis and Byrd (Purcell was writing during the reign of King Charles II and James II). And Purcell’s writing is not without imagination — although heavy-handed in its symbolism, Goodwin was right to ask the choir to gliss down a seventh interval when singing the text “… to fall from thee …”. But Purcell’s funereal choral piece (with portative organ as sole accompaniment) was stodgy English music that didn’t seem to impress the choral singers, many of whom were solidly buried in their scores and seemed unattached to the music. And who could blame them? Sandwiched between works from two of the great creative minds of the mid to late Baroque era, it had no chance but to seem boring.

Purcell’s “Masque” in Dioclesian utilized the full orchestra and choir in the second half of Friday’s concert, but still never quite managed the same enthusiasm as Couperin or Bach. “The Masque” is a work for the English Theater and often came out as such, incorporating baudy humor, (funny only because it was taking place in the ectopia of Jordan Hall) juvenile antics and hackneyed drama which seemed more the subsistence of the work than the music itself.

Again, the musicians told volumes of the stage’s enthusiasm for the work — soloist singers were, more often than not, completely buried in their scores, and the performance was plagued with missed entrances. Even the program notes, printing the text of “The Masque”, were riddled with typographical errors. It’s hard not to wonder whether this work wouldn’t have benefited a few more rehearsals.

In a question and answer session after the concert, Goodwin lamented the fall of English music after Purcell. His point is well taken: after King James II, William and Mary ushered in a period of harsh Protestantism in England, banning music, theater, and most forms of the arts; after which it took until the late nineteenth century to re-develop a patently English sound. It’s hard not to imagine, however, that Goodwin was a little too enthusiastic with his boundaries on the decline and fall of the English sound. Friday’s concert made patently clear exactly how well English music was surviving compared to the music of France and Italy: even Purcell couldn’t hold a candle to it. The Protestants had already won.