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Handel & Haydn Society separate summits from foothills of 18th-century symphonies

The musical masterpieces of the past are so ubiquitous today that it is harder than ever to remember that they represent just a fragment of the music composed during their eras. Bach has come to stand for the late ­Baroque, Haydn and Mozart for classicism, and so on. This sneaky bit of ­synecdoche is not just misleading; it also makes those composers’ best works seem less extraordinary than they really are.

Correcting this impression was one of the virtues of the Handel and Haydn Society’s Friday concert under conductor Bernard Labadie. Among four 18th-century symphonies were works by German-born composers Henri-
Joseph Rigel and Joseph Martin Kraus alongside those of Mozart and Haydn. One could not only hear infrequently performed works, but also appreciate more fully what separates the summits of an art form from the foothills.

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The Rigel and Kraus pieces also made for a case study in obscure repertoire. Some of it is obscure for a reason, like Rigel’s Symphony in C minor, a dutiful exercise in symphonic writing marked by the tense, agitated character known as “Sturm und Drang,” and not much else. Kraus’s Symphony in E minor was much more distinctive, a piece whose long melodies and intricate architecture make it something of a minor gem. The way sections of the orchestra exchanged ideas reminded one of Haydn, an ­admirer of Kraus.

In fact, the piece made a greater impression than Haydn’s Symphony No. 26 (“Lamentatione”), which followed, a terse, relatively early work in which the clearest evidence of Haydn’s authorship is the sudden outbursts that punctuate the last movement.

Whatever the merits of those three works, none of them is a masterwork. Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony clearly is, by any yardstick imaginable. It is ­also an exceedingly familiar one. But the virtue of this program, intentional or not. was how one heard elements of the earlier works transformed into something much greater.

Rigel’s brashness became orchestration of ­audacious power, Kraus’s ­dialogues became complex contrapuntal textures, and Haydn’s surprises turned into a wonderfully disorienting series of stops and starts. Labadie and the ­orchestra made a strong case for the first three works, though the Haydn seemed unnecessarily tentative.

The Mozart performance was terrific and unusually nuanced. Many conductors play the whole symphony with the same level of energy; Labadie often held something in reserve, to ­ensure that phrases had coherence and shape.

The finale, though, was scorching in just the right way. The orchestra played superbly throughout.

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com.

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