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CD: Crotchet

Joseph HAYDN (1785-1850)
Harmoniemesse (1802) [42:58]
Cantata “Qual dubbio ormai” (1763) [15:00]
Te Deum (1762) [7:35]
Eva Mei (soprano); Elisabeth von Magnus (contralto); Herbert Lippert (tenor); Oliver Widmer (bass)
Concentus musicus Wien, Arnold Schoenberg Choir/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. Pfarrkirkche, Stainz, Austria, July 1998
DAS ALTE WERK 2564 690552 [66:00]
Experience Classicsonline

Haydn chose a different compositional style in his 1802 Harmoniemesse. It’s no longer the ‘classical sound’ we are used to, but something altogether bolder. That can be disconcerting to ears that expect to be casually entertained with the easy beauty and gay spirit that features so strongly in most of his work. Intrepid if not quite yet ‘Beethovenesque-romantic’, the Kyrie and Gloria especially are rather demanding.

If you continue to listen attentively, you’ll happen upon the gem of “Et incarnatus est”, where the Gloria lets up; later the quickening Agnus Dei that concludes with the Dona nobis pacem, a positively rousing, rather joyous plea for peace. Harnoncourt sees especially in the latter parallels with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. You may not hear those, you will be able to imagine how Haydn, by now the most respected composer in Europe, sends the celebratory crowd - on the occasion of the name-day of Princess Maria Hermengild Esterházy - out of the church to the rather more secular part of the festivities.

At the very other end of Haydn’s output and career are the Te Deum and the Cantata “Qual dubbio ormai”. Rather than peeking into an emerging romantic language, they hark back to the late Viennese baroque tradition. These are small works-to-order for the Esterházy court when Haydn wasn’t the most celebrated musician alive but a lowly, humble Vice Court Capellmeister. The cantata’s main ingredient is the late-baroque/early classical soprano aria, vocal pyrotechnics of amiable character.

There’s a good bit of competition for Haydn masses; at least nine different recordings are available. My go-to version had hitherto been Gardiner’s set (Philips) of the six most popular of the fourteen masses. With that not being at hand, I pitted Harnoncourt against Sigiswald Kuijken (La Petite Bande, DHM), Richard Hickox (Collegium Musicum 90, Chandos), and Bruno Weil (Tafelmusik, Sony). There really isn’t an odd one out, either positively or negatively.

Weil is notable for his refreshingly swift tempi, matched occasionally by Hickox. The latter has the most focus on the voices, which are up-front and quite (too?) dramatic. Harnoncourt has his singers and orchestras reach your ears from further back, with more ambience surrounding them - similar to Weil but with more clarity. Weil has a boys’ choir (Tölzer Knabenchor) and they’re in absolute top form. If the sound was as vivid as Hickox’s (the Sony recording was made by Bavarian Radio in 1997 at the Irsee Monestary-home of one of the finest breweries there are, by the way), I’d have found my favorite with Weil, not least for the incredibly natural voices of his soloists.

But I also admire Harnoncourt’s flexibility of phrasing which makes for a very lively reading despite consistently slower tempi. If clarity and identifiableness of individual voices - vocal and orchestral - is of importance to you, Hickox should be most suited; where integration of all musical strands reigns paramount, the wonderfully balanced Kuijken would win.

If one of those qualities is of special importance to you or if you really love the work, it will be worth adding to your collection of Harmoniemessen. Otherwise any of these - including the temperate Harnoncourt - will do nicely and need not be replaced. Kuijken and Weil are both available thanks to ArkivMusic’s “ArkivCD” program where they resuscitate - properly licensed, of course - out of print interpretations from the catalogs of all major record companies. Hickox is available individually and in an 8-CD box of the complete masses. Rilling (Hänssler) and George Guest (Decca) are non-HIP alternatives.

Jens F. Laurson



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