History sometimes imprints itself on music and then slips away, leaving only its impression, like a calling card. Thanks to French soldiers threatening Vienna more than 200 years ago, we heard on Thursday night in Symphony Hall the martial drum rolls of the Agnus Dei in Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War.”
In other words, the composer did not need posterity as muse; he had current events. Napoleon’s spectacular string of military victories in 1796 prompted Austria to press its composers into the service of rallying spirits at home.
This particular Mass, however, needs no special contextual pleading. On its own terms, it is full of beautiful, broadly textured music with martial echoes only around the edges. It is in fact hard to believe that the work had never been performed by the BSO in Symphony Hall until Thursday night’s performance led by Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos.
The “Qui tollis” stands out as one of the work’s marvels, with a stately yet soaring duo for bass and solo cello (handsomely dispatched by Martha Babcock). The Tanglewood Festival Chorus delivered some striking singing in the Credo, responsive to moments of both high drama and delicacy.
But Fruhbeck de Burgos, conducting from a chair while still projecting an air of brisk efficiency, often left the singers to largely fend for themselves, and the TFC’s sound overall was less tightly groomed and less attentive to subtleties of phrasing and dynamics than this fine chorus is capable of. The conductor’s work with the orchestra also seemed more concerned with bold gestures than smaller evocative details. Still, it was a treat to hear this work, encountered all too rarely.
The night opened with another relative rarity, Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella,” performed not as a suite but in its complete form with singers. The orchestra has this music somewhere deep in its bones, and it delivered a solid, at times glittering performance on Thursday, though Fruhbeck de Burgos also seemed to flatten out a portion of the score’s irony and wit.
With his sweet-toned and elegantly deployed tenor, Matthew Polenzani was the standout among the evening’s set of vocal soloists, which also included Karen Cargill, Alexandra Coku, and David Pittsinger, stepping in for an indisposed Ildebrando D’Arcangelo.