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MUSIC REVIEW

Handel and Haydn caps season with grand ensembles

By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / May 2, 2011

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The Handel and Haydn Society closed its 196th season over the weekend with a pair of concerts whose centerpiece was Mozart’s unfinished Requiem. The piece has become so popular in the completion by Mozart’s pupil Sussmäyr that our experience of it brings together the terrors of judgment with the comforts of familiarity into a union unlike that in any other piece.

Harry Christophers, the Society’s music director, seemed determined not to let the piece’s popularity overshadow its spiritual darkness. He led a high-tension performance that bristled with drama and sharp edges. Tempos were swift, and Christophers not only provided shape for individual phrases but for entire movements as well. The first half of the Requiem unfolded in a single broad arc, the forward momentum interrupted only by the heart-wrenching “Lacrimosa.’’ The rest of the piece is more varied — and, it must be said, less successful — but Christophers paced it just as surely.

The H&H orchestra and chorus gave him exactly what he asked for, which was a lot. Of the four soloists, the most impressive was bass-baritone Eric Owens, who sang with clarion tone and seemingly limitless power, especially in the “Tuba mirum.’’ Soprano Elizabeth Watts also stood out for the color and finesse of her voice. Andrew Kennedy’s sturdy tenor was impressive; Phyllis Pancella’s reticent mezzo-soprano somewhat less so. They formed a well-matched quartet in the “Recordare’’ movement.

The Requiem ended a full program that began with two other products of Mozart’s final year. First came the mysteriously beautiful motet “Ave verum corpus’’ for chorus, organ, and strings. Next up was the aria “Per questa bella mano,’’ which puts both the bass voice and the double bass in the spotlight. It was another chance for Owens to demonstrate the command and range of his voice, and also a rare (and well deserved) moment in the spotlight for H&H principal bassist Rob Nairn.

Rounding out the first half was Handel’s “Dixit Dominus,’’ in which the chorus simply outdid itself. Indeed, the piece asks far more in choral virtuosity than anything in the Requiem, and the H&H singers responded with pinpoint ensemble work and made Handel’s thickets of counterpoint completely lucid. Watts and Pancella were soloists, but they were often overshadowed by a sextet of singers drawn from the chorus. It was, in some ways, the most impressive thing on the program.

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

HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY Harry Christophers, conductor

At: Symphony Hall, Friday