Back in February 2013, the Handel and Haydn Society gave Franz Joseph Haydn an entire program to himself, performing his Symphony No. 6 (“Le matin”), Violin Concerto in G, “L’isola disabitata” Overture, and Symphony No. 82 (“The Bear”). Friday evening, we got a second helping: Symphony No. 7 (“Le midi”), Violin Concerto in C, “Lo speziale” Overture, and Symphony No. 83 (“The Hen”). If anything, the sequel was even better than the original.
The overture, for starters. A glance at the plot makes you think Mozart. Old apothecary Sempronio (the “speziale” of the title) is looking to marry his young ward, Grilletta, but she has two others suitors, foppish Volpino and, her choice, Sempronio’s apprentice, Mengone. Under Handel and Haydn artistic director Harry Christophers, the overture buzzed with energy and suspense for three minutes, then abruptly broke into a graceful minuet before tiptoeing back into the main section. It made you wonder why the opera itself — all of Haydn’s operas, really — are not more popular.
The same is true of his early symphonies. The heart of this “Le midi” (“Noon”) was the slow movement, which moved from a somber C-minor recitative for solo violin (concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky sighing eloquently) to an agitated interchange with the orchestra and then a serene dialogue between violin and solo cello (Guy Fishman, equally eloquent). The symphony began with 60 seconds of pomp and circumstance before it started to scurry, the conversation going this way and that. The horns (R. J. Kelley and John Boden) shone in the genial minuet; the bass (Anthony Manzo) was a shy suitor in the trio. The rustic, good-humored finale featured Christopher Krueger’s solo flute.
Haydn’s C-major Violin Concerto is a tougher customer than the G-major: It spends more time in the solo instrument’s upper register and calls for more double-stopping. Nosky, who led the 15-member ensemble, was a mischievous soloist in the Allegro moderato first movement. The Adagio serenade over plucked strings went quickly, like an intermezzo, whereas the Presto finale was not rushed. It all sounded casual and easy, but not without heart.
“The Hen,” or “La poule,” gets its name from the unmistakable clucking sequence the strings make just 90 seconds into the opening Allegro spiritoso. In Christophers’s reading, that clucking, which keeps returning, seemed to undermine the ominous brooding of the main section. The Andante, with its sudden outbursts, was a study in contrasts; the heavy-footed minuet had more good work from Krueger in the trio. The galloping finale, with its witty false endings, was like a hunt for the hen.