CAMBRIDGE — “Mendelssohn’s Library” was the tantalizing title of this weekend’s Handel and Haydn Society program.
The title is more resonant than a program called, say, Schumann’s Library or Wagner’s Library, perhaps because 19th-century libraries suggest repositories of knowledge, distillations of the past. And Mendelssohn is of course the 19th-century composer most closely associated with a new mode of historical restrospection, a desire — in its own way radical, for the times — to honor the great musical masters that came before him.
These days, in a contemporary classical music culture where historical retrospection can often pass for the entire enterprise, it’s strange to think that this attitude had to be invented, but it did. And just one seminal moment in this long process was Mendelssohn’s launching of the long Bach revival through his landmark 1829 performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” a work that had by then all but disappeared.
Mendelssohn’s interests naturally extended beyond J.S. Bach to Handel, Vivaldi, and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and works by all four of these composers appeared on H&H’s weekend program, directed by its concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, who at Sunday’s concert at Sanders Theatre also introduced the program from the stage.
For the occasion H&H tapped the string players of its period instrument ensemble, and the afternoon opened with an impressively high-energy take on Vivaldi’s Concerto “Alla Rustica” (RV 151), its outer movements dispatched at furious tempos while still conveying the music’s essential contours. This was followed by solid if less distinctive accounts of Handel’s Concerto Grosso (Op. 6, No. 12), and J.S. Bach’s celebrated “Double” Concerto for two violins (BWV 1043).
In the former, the music’s sparkle was slightly dimmed on account of the occasional tuning issues and a rather circumscribed approach to phrasing. In the latter, Nosky and violinist Christina Day Martinson took up the solo parts with vigor and ample technique but not always a palpably shared or complementary interpretive vision. Surely there is a probing middle ground somewhere between old-school ponderously Romantic accounts of this work and period approaches that flit briskly across its surfaces as this one did.
The second half brought the afternoon’s most persuasive music-making, beginning with C.P.E. Bach’s forward-looking Sinfonia in B-flat, with the H&H band alert to this work’s bracing and mercurial play of shapes and ideas. Last up was Mendelssohn’s youthful D-minor Violin Concerto, a piece that stands, in substance and popularity, deep in the shadow of the composer’s ubiquitous E-minor Concerto. All the more reason to appreciate that Nosky gave us the chance to hear it in a vivid performance that played up the work’s not insignificant charms, through phrasing whose surface variety lent it at times an almost improvisatory feel, and through an imaginative use of tonal color, at its most striking in a third-movement passage rendered in a spectral sul ponticello.
Meanwhile, back in Mendelssohn’s actual library, we would have surely found music by each of the composers on this program, if not necessarily these particular works. But there’s one more salient fact worth noting. In today’s world of narrow and hyper-specialized conservatory curriculums, how revealing and cautionary to learn from one scholar who actually ran the numbers: Less than one-tenth of the volumes in Mendelssohn’s library had anything to do with music.