Sir Roger Norrington returned to the Handel and Haydn Society this weekend to wrap up its season with a pair of all-Haydn concerts in Symphony Hall. These days Norrington is serving as artistic adviser to the organization and seems to be the most active behind the scenes among its current trio of artistic leaders (the others are Grant Llewellyn and Christopher Hogwood). He is a natural raconteur, a certified contrarian and sometimes polemicist, and a conductor with strong opinions about period performance style. The organization feels more interesting when he's around.
One rather uncontroversial idea that Norrington has brought with him is that H&H should focus more intensively on the music of Haydn, a composer you hardly think of as neglected, and yet one whose output typically gets only a very selective airing, even by a group with Haydn's name on its stationery. A telling example was the first half of Friday's concert, given over to the composer's Symphony No. 44, "Trauer." The work is one of the better-known of Haydn's middle period, and yet, in its nearly two centuries of concerts, H&H had never performed it. The program also included the grand "Harmoniemesse," the last major choral work that Haydn wrote, which the group had not performed in over a decade.
On Friday night the "Trauer" proved a particularly engaging ride. As ever, with his highly idiosyncratic conducting style, one gets, in addition to a Haydn symphony, the Roger Norrington show. He seems to delight in exuding his own personality at the orchestra through the medium of the music. Fortunately, Haydn suits him extremely well. The opening movement was propelled by a tight, coiled energy, and the presto finale was taken at an exhilarating breakneck speed. In the adagio, Norrington had the orchestra commit to a genuine pianissimo sound, quieter than I had ever heard it play, and to striking effect.
Norrington was more buttoned-down for the Mass, given the nature of the music and the sheer size of the forces demanded. Still this reading was both suitably dignified and spacious yet also teeming with life in the small details that emerged from the orchestra with its enlarged contingent of winds. For its part, the H&H chorus was consistently at or near its best, singing with a lovely tone, light yet firm, balanced and clear. The Sanctus in particular boasted a beautifully rich choral sound, though for the record, the emphasis placed here on the sibilants was a curious touch, more mannered than dramatic. The soloists - Heidi Grant Murphy, Susan Platts, John McVeigh, and Robert Gleadow - were a strong and well-matched group.
Norrington returns next season to conduct two more all-Haydn programs, including the composer's rarely heard opera, "L'Anima del Filosofo."
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.