The superb and superbly performed Bach program with which the Handel and Haydn Society is opening its 2012–2013 season begins with one of his most popular instrumental works, the Orchestral Suite No. 3 (with its “Air on the G String”). It closes with the magnificent “Magnificat.” In between: the brief, festive Cantata No. 71, “Gott ist mein König” (“God Is My King”); the Sinfonia from Cantata No. 18; the familiar “Jesus bleibet meine Freude” (“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”) chorale from Cantata No. 147; and the Sinfonia from Cantata No. 75. It’s all bound together by the key of D major (both the Suite and the “Magnificat”) and by joyfully squealing trumpets, which proclaim a secular majesty at the beginning and a sacred mystery at the end.
But even Bach doesn’t play itself. The Overture to the suite is emphatically double-dotted, or syncopated, in the French style; yet it needs to dance gracefully and seductively. Under artistic director Harry Christophers on Friday, the Handel and Haydn Period Orchestra made it do just that, with a big arc, lots of shading, chatty oboes in the trio, and raucous trumpets. The air was caressed. The gavotte and the bourrée were robust and springy; the gigue was all rowdy fun.
Cantata No. 71 is early Bach, having debuted at the Marienkirche in Mühlhausen, Germany, in 1708. The piece was written for the inauguration of the new town council, so though it begins by addressing God, it concludes with a section about the “new government.” Best of the soloists was vehement alto Emily Marvosh. The chorus was chilling in asking God to preserve his turtle doves. Both the first section and the last end with what sounds like a cuckoo clock in the recorders — Bach’s little joke?
Christophers made a kind of suite of the next three pieces: the Cantata No. 18 Sinfonia, somber, with no violins; a fleet, exuberant “Jesus bleibet meine Freude”; and the zippy Cantata No. 75 Sinfonia, whose highlight was Paul Perfetti’s note-perfect slide trumpet. The “Magnificat” was by turns exultant and sober. Marvosh, in the section where God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty, was again the outstanding soloist. Christophers, his orchestra, and chorus made it all swing.