Kraemer, Music of the Baroque serve up a delightful double-shot of Haydn

By Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
January 31, 2012

If you can’t enjoy Haydn, then it’s quite likely — as a soprano friend puts it — that you have no soul.

Nicholas Kraemer and Music of the Baroque offered two of Haydn’s symphonies and ample soul Monday night at the Harris Theater, with neither work regularly heard and one a genuine obscurity.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 31 just precedes his sturm und drang period, yet even here the composer was experimenting within the form, often by spotlighting individual instruments. The symphony gets its subtitle (Horn Signal) by the use of four horns and while the brass has fleeting moments in the sun, the horns are used less for bravura spectacle then for varied orchestra coloring. It’s an odd work even by Haydn’s standard with a strange finale (marked “Very Moderate”) and ending with stately concertante solos before a belated burst at the coda.

Kraemer has a wonderful way with Haydn. Directing from the harpsichord, MOB’s principal guest conductor drew a superbly balanced performance that put across the tempo shifts and rhythmic acuity with an innate, idiomatic understanding of the musical wit and jumpy dynamism.

The quartet of horns (Jonathan Boen, Oto Carrillo, Gail Williams and Neil Kimel) provided mostly gleaming playing though at least one of the group was clearly having an off night. The most prominent roles are taken by other instruments and the principals acquitted themselves superbly, including concertmaster Robert Waters, cellist Barbara Haffner, flutist Mary Stolper, double bass Collins Trier and oboists Robert Morgan and Peggy Michel.

The Symphony No 98 is one of the most infrequently played of Haydn’s late works in the genre (not that even the “popular” ones are heard that much these days). It combines one of his wittiest music with a dark grandeur rare in these late symphonies. Haydn had recently heard of the death of Mozart and in the tragic introduction and the somber Adagio — with a strong resemblance to the slow movement of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony — it’s hard to avoid the feeling that he is paying tribute to his departed friend.

Kraemer here provided a virtual seminar in Haydn conducting — giving ample weight to the dark-hued introduction yet segueing gracefully into the ensuing Allegro and giving enormous lift to the buoyant main theme. The Adagio was imbued with apt elegiac expression without ever traversing Rococo parameters.

The Presto finale offers one of Haydn’s most simple and infectious melodies and Kraemer and the orchestra threw off all the unexpected turns and rhythmic flips with huge panache. The little harpsichord solo near the end — its only appearance in the entire symphony and likely some private Haydn joke — had just the right quirky insouciance in Kraemer’s hands.

Two Handel works made up the middle portion of the program. In the Concerto Grosso in D major (Op. 6, no. 6) for strings, Kraemer drew notably elegant and intimate string playing, by turns vivacious, fizzing and graceful with refined solo contributions by the front desk players.

Handel’s Concerto a due cori in F major, composed for a production of his oratorio Judas Maccabaeus, is cast on a larger scale with four oboes and pairs of horns and bassoons and timpani. The conductor elicited a majestic yet vigorous performance that made much of the antiphonal exchanges between the “two choruses.” The horns were challenged at times by the treacherous high writing yet the performance was otherwise finely polished and incisive with especially inspired oboe playing from Morgan.