The Handel and Haydn Society opened its 199th season on Friday with a single work: Bach’s Mass in B Minor. The Mass occupies a prized position: It has only a few serious rivals for greatest work of Western sacred music and so carries an air of being monumental and even a little forbidding.
None of this came to mind during H&H’s transfixing performance, though. What stood out was how vibrant, airy, and even approachable it can sound in the right hands. If performances of the Mass in past decades conveyed an image of humanity laboring under a heavy burden, this one connoted instead a restless search for faith in an uncertain world.
Of course, current performance practice of Bach favors quick tempos and light textures, and Harry Christophers, leading an orchestra and chorus of 36 each, provided those in spades. Everything was swift and insistent, even the more reflective movements of the piece. There was light even in the densest contrapuntal textures. What made this concert special was that it achieved those performance goals without sacrificing the spiritual gravity we need from this piece, and which draws us repeatedly back to it.
Christophers has obviously thought deeply about the design of the Mass. His shaping of both individual movements and the larger architecture was sure and convincing. He never lingered, even on moments a listener was used to savoring. In fact, if there was a fault to the performance, it was that his pacing robbed a few movements of their majesty (“Gratias”) or their emotional darkness (“Crucifixus”).
His plan was exactingly carried out by the performers. Among memorable passages for the orchestra were solos by Christopher Krueger (flute) and R.J. Kelley (horn). The trumpets did yeoman work.
As for the chorus, it sang with remarkable precision and expressive intensity, wire to wire. Rather than import singers, H&H wisely drew a dozen vocal soloists from the chorus ranks. Among the standouts were soprano Margot Rood and alto Thea Lobo in the “Christe,” soprano Teresa Wakim and tenor Matthew Anderson in “Domine Deus,” and alto Emily Marvosh’s chilling “Agnus Dei” near the end.
The concert was dedicated to two H&H musicians who passed away over the summer: timpanist John Grimes and horn player Richard Menaul. They are missed but leave behind a group in wonderful shape.