Great Britain has a historically bad reputation for a number of things, and it only deserves it for some of them. Specifically, a popular perception persists of England as a musical wasteland between the death of Henry Purcell (1695) and the rise of Edward Elgar (early 1900s). However, thanks to the efforts of artists such as baroque violinist Rachel Podger and countertenor Reginald Mobley — co-curators of a sterling British Baroque program performed by Handel and Haydn Society on Friday evening at Jordan Hall — British music is not only getting its due attention, but the definition of British music is expanding.
Mobley has long been a familiar presence on Boston stages. Born in Florida and now based in Jamaica Plain, he was appointed H+H’s first ever programming consultant in 2020 after several years curating and directing the organization’s “Every Voice” free concert series. Podger, a Brit with a lengthy resume including the founding of the Brecon Baroque Festival in Wales, has appeared with H+H in the past but not as recently. The two collaborated to curate a similar British program in 2022 with Juilliard415, the period instrument ensemble based out of the elite conservatory’s historical performance program.
This weekend’s iteration of the program zeroed in on three composers who called London home. These were the British-born Purcell; the German-born George Frideric Handel, who spent much of his working life in London and considered the city home; and Ignatius Sancho, a writer and composer who was born into slavery, fled to freedom, and became the “first known person of African descent” to vote in an English election, according to the program notes. Addressing the audience before the segment of the program dedicated to Sancho, Mobley introduced the composer and described his music as “a bit of a romp.”
“Feel free to let your hair down,” joked Mobley. “I did, and it’s still not back.”
The 20-person instrumental ensemble, directed from the first violin stand by Podger, quickly proved that hadn’t been false advertising. Sancho’s music was represented on the program with a suite of 10 dances and songs arranged by harpsichordist Nicola Canzano, leading off with a minuet rhythm pulsing with col legno accents — a technique in which string players strike the strings with the sticks of their bows.
The next instrumental piece zinged with exchanges between a solo violin and viola, and an air for five players allowed for a sparser sound to briefly take the spotlight, as Podger and oboist Debra Nagy carried the upper lines in close, sweet harmonies. After the bounding “Duchess of Devonshire’s Reel,” someone in the audience shouted “Yeah!” before applause broke out. Theorbo player Brandon Acker, whose YouTube channel on classical guitar, lute, and other historic plucked instruments has over 500,000 subscribers, fit seamlessly into the familiar H+H continuo section of cellist Guy Fishman and harpsichordist Ian Watson.
However, Mobley’s presence elevated the evening from superb to sublime. It would be very difficult to find a more compelling torch-bearer for Sancho’s vocal repertoire. “The Complaint,” which set a poem from Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” glowed with warmth and gorgeous melismas. The many leaps in the rhythmic melody of “Sweetest Bard” made the piece feel more like a fiddle tune than anything singable by a human voice, yet Mobley ran its gauntlet with scarcely a wobble.
Mobley, who was nominated for a 2024 Best Classical Solo Vocal Album Grammy for his record “Because,” conducted himself like both a soloist and member of the band. He remained on stage for the entire first half even when not singing, attentively listening to the instrumental goings-on. Singing Purcell’s “O Solitude, my sweetest choice” and “Here the Deities Approve,” his voice was ethereal and warm, with clean and unaffected English diction that could be understood without flipping through the printed program. After intermission, when pieces by Handel were the focus, Mobley graced the audience with a tender and heartfelt rendition of “Cara sposa” from the opera “Rinaldo,” demonstrating impeccable command of the gradual dynamic changes that are so crucial to those Baroque-era long notes.
The second half also saw Podger show off her virtuosic credentials as soloist in Handel’s Concerto a 5 in B-flat Major, the composer’s only known concerto for solo violin. Her sound was delicate but muscular, flashing with agile momentum. The printed program ended with another concerto, the Concerto Grosso in F Major, which concluded with a sprightly but somewhat anticlimactic minuet, so it was no surprise when Mobley appeared on stage for an encore. The small continuo section backed him up in Purcell’s “Evening Hymn,” a lovely lullaby, while the rest of the orchestra basked in the glow.
HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY
At NEC’s Jordan Hall, Feb. 2. Repeats Feb. 4. www.handelandhaydn.org