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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
The Complete Masses
Full contents at foot of review
various performers
rec. various locations, 1966-2001.
DECCA COLLECTORS EDITION 4787828 [8 CDs: c. 546:00]

Haydn’s Masses form an extremely significant part of his huge output, just as important as the symphonies and string quartets. His very first work seems to have been the little Mass in F (on CD2 here), and the last piece he completed was the great ‘Harmoniemesse’ (CD5). As with the symphonies, it is the final group that are the finest; six major masterpieces, which show Haydn at his most creatively fertile. Indeed, it seems clear that his London experience greatly enriched Haydn’s mass composition in his late years; the approach is ‘symphonic’, often with elements of sonata-form, and the orchestra is used with striking resourcefulness. There is absolutely nothing formulaic in these works; he has clearly set about each mass with a fresh mind and a fresh response to the text.

The earlier masses fall into two types; some are very short and straightforward – the so-called ‘Little Organ Mass’ of 1778 is a good example – though containing many passages of typical brilliance and beauty of conception. The other type is represented by the wonderful Missa Cellensis, more often known by its subtitle, Missa Sanctae Caeciliae, or simply ‘Cäcilienmesse’. This work of 1766 is a ‘missa solenne’, or ‘solemn mass’, of which the best-known example is Bach’s in B minor. Rather than being symphonic, the work has more the structure of a cantata, with solo ‘arias’, some with instrumental obbligati, and the text divided up quite markedly.

This box-set is described as ‘The Complete Masses’, and contains thirteen such works; this needs a very slight caveat, as there are officially fourteen masses listed in Haydn’s name. The early Mass in G, not included here, has however had serious doubts expressed over its authenticity, so we’ll let Decca off the hook. Especially as they have given us, for good measure, the comparatively rarely heard Stabat Mater, the fine Te Deum in C, and the short motet Insanae et vanae curae.

What of the performances? If we leave aside the Stabat Mater, whose forces are entirely different, we have three conductors – Simon Preston, George Guest and John Eliot Gardiner; three choirs – Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford, St. John’s College Choir, Cambridge and the Monteverdi Choir; and three orchestras – the Academy of Ancient Music, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and the English Baroque Soloists. As you can see, the recordings are ‘well aged’, stretching from 1966 to 2001. Along the way, we come across many of the finest British singers of the past half century – April Cantelo, Helen Watts, Robert Tear, Martyn Hill, Benjamin Luxon, just for starters. Another major delight is the organ playing of Christopher Hogwood in some of the earlier masses, Stephen Cleobury in the Schöpfungmesse and Brian Runnett in the Kleine Orgelmesse.

CD1 is enjoyable enough, but doesn’t really prepare you for the feast which is to come; the little Missa Rorate coeli desuper (based on an advent plainsong with that text) is a very early work, and rather perfunctory in its setting. The balance of the Christ Church Cathedral Choir, too, whether internally or because of the recording, is not as successful as elsewhere, with men often too strong for the boys. However, Haydn had clearly already developed that capacity to surprise and delight, and the final Agnus Dei has a magically dark twist in its harmonies.

The contrastingly imposing Cäcilienmesse follows, and things start to warm up, with splendid articulation from the choir in the Kyrie fugue. That standard is maintained throughout, and there is some fine solo singing, especially from alto Margaret Cable and tenor Martyn Hill. Some of the instrumental playing, however, is a little under-characterised; the violin passages, for example, in the splendid Qui tollis needs more expressive shaping. As so often with Haydn, it’s the central part of the Credo that brings the most interesting music. The text deals directly with the life and death of Christ, and the composer always responds with moving and often surprising music. Here, Martyn Hill gives a very beautiful account of the Et incarnatus est, and the duet of Margaret Cable and David Thomas does full justice to the Crucifixus. The Christchurch trebles, though not always strong in tone, sing the Benedictus with sweet and refined tone; generally this is an enjoyable rather than really gripping performance of this splendid work. Richard Hickox’s version on Chaconne, with the Collegium Musicum 90 and an outstanding team of soloists including Susan Gritton and Mark Padmore, is far more compelling, and finds a level of power beyond that of Preston and his musicians.

CD2 is a different kettle of fish, and on a far higher musical level. In fact, I ask myself why Decca did not make this the first CD in the box, especially as it begins with the lovely Missa Brevis in F, not only Haydn’s first Mass, but also his first known composition. It receives a really gorgeous performance, and the duetting of the two sopranos, Judith Nelson and the incomparable Emma Kirkby, is a constant delight. Then comes the first of the great final six masses to appear in the box. This is the penultimate one of the series, the so-called Schöpfungmesse; this being translated means ‘Creation Mass’, and, like so many Haydn nicknames, it arises from a curious but relatively unimportant feature of the work. During its Gloria, Haydn momentarily quotes from the final duet of his great oratorio The Creation – ‘The dew –dropping morn, How she quickens all’, introduced by a little fanfare on a pair of horns.

This masterpiece is given a rousing and full-hearted performance by George Guest and his forces. The St. John’s College Choir were in a golden period when this recording was made, and the trebles make a fantastic sound; their high B flats in the Gloria (and elsewhere) are a complete joy. Here is wonderful orchestral playing from The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and great work from the top-class soloists, even if some of April Cantelo’s articulation in the Et iterum venturus est during the Credo is rather graceless. One clumsy edit apart (in the Benedictus), this is a splendid account of the work.

The two pieces on CD3 are the Great Organ Mass in E flat, and the Heiligmesse (‘Holy Mass’) in B flat, Haydn’s most favoured key for mass composition; five of them are in this key. You might ask “Why ‘Great’ organ mass and ‘Little’ organ mass?”. Well, it’s nothing to do with the dimensions of the organ in question. The former is a full-length mass, with quite a large orchestra, while the latter is a missa brevis (short mass) scored for just strings and continuo. Each has an important and florid solo organ part, and for the ‘Great’ this solo is played exquisitely by Christopher Hogwood. The sound of the work is enriched by the unusual inclusion of two cors anglais, instruments quite rare in Haydn’s music. It is a delicious and often quite quirky piece, and the Christ Church singers have some fun with the outrageous dotted rhythms in the first part of the Gloria. The Benedictus, with its organ obbligato and soaring solo vocal lines, is particularly memorable.

The Grosse Orgelmesse was published in 1774, though probably composed in the late 1760s; so there are something like thirty years between it and the Heiligmesse of 1796. As I mentioned at the start, Haydn’s method in these late masses was much more symphonic, with rigorous discussion of fruitful musical material, though he still kept the major structural divisions suggested by the text, as well as a liking for extended fugues to round off the longer movements. This mass sees the first of the John Eliot Gardiner recordings, bringing us deftly into another era of ‘period’ performance. There is a crispness about the choral and instrumental tone, a sometimes brazen clarity, and an energetic spring in the rhythms. This recording hails from 2001, and possesses all of those qualities we have come to expect from Gardiner. It serves Haydn well, as do the four excellent soloists.

CD4 again mixes the two eras; Preston, Christ Church Choir, Academy of Ancient Music for the Nikolaimesse, Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists for the Theresienmesse. In the first of these, Preston and his forces give a radiant version of one of the less well-known masses, which is nonetheless a true masterpiece – one of Haydn’s most lovable works. The boys sing with wonderful enthusiasm and panache, even if in one or two places they do let themselves down by going a little over the top (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) for example in the Sanctus. The soloists’ quartet for the Crucifixus is one of the highlights of the whole box – just exquisite, and getting every ounce of meaning from Haydn’s extraordinary harmonies.

The Theresienmesse of 1799 is named after Maria Theresa, Empress of Naples and Sicily; not to be confused with the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, whose grand-daughter she was. The eponymous Maria Theresa was a fine soprano, who sang in private performances of The Creation and The Seasons. Gardiner’s reading is full of things to enjoy; the Miserere section of the Gloria movement is particularly powerful, ending with some magical pianissimo singing by the Monteverdi Choir. Interesting too to hear the superb singing of Gerald Finley, here at a relatively early stage in his recording career.

On CD5, we get the Kleine Orgelmesse of 1777, and the Harmoniemesse, Haydn’s final completed work. For these pieces, we are once more in the hands of George Guest and his team, as on CD2. A particular joy of the first is the playing of Brian Runnett, who luxuriates in the many solo moments for the organ, drawing Elysian sounds from the St. John’s organ.

The performance of the Harmoniemesse is of a similar standard, with strong contributions from all four distinguished soloists. I remember first hearing this recording soon after it was released on LP, and finding the bustling tempo for the Benedictus hilarious – quite irreverent. It’s still as delightful, but we have grown more used to quick tempi in Haydn and other Classical composers. The name Harmoniemesse refers to the fact that the piece calls for a very full wind section (‘Harmonie’ is German for ‘wind band’ or ‘wind ensemble’), and I can’t let the opportunity pass without complimenting the bassoon playing – presumably Martin Gatt, but I’d need confirmation of that. The piece is full of glorious bassoon solos, all played with consummate artistry.

CD6 brings us Gardiner again, with the late Paukenmesse, (‘Drumroll Mass’), often known in the UK as Missa in tempore belli (‘Mass in time of war’). This is a darkly powerful work, featuring ominous timpani rumbles in the Agnus Dei. It is given a performance of the same incisiveness as the others by this conductor and his performers. I should say, however, that, splendid though this version is, I would not want to be without the Hickox recording, in part because of its fascinating couplings – extracts from Haydn’s incidental music to Alfred, King of the Anglo-Saxons.

Before that we have the Mariazellermesse, the last of the earlier group of masses, and, as David Threasher suggests in his concise but helpful booklet notes, Haydn can be felt here looking forward to his later style, in the rigour and power of his setting. There is another fine team of soloists, and the disc is completed by the stormy motet Insanae et vanae curae, directed by Gardiner in a rumbustious performance. Somebody should have told Decca that there are no soloists in this last piece.

Which of the late Haydn Masses is the greatest? The answer tends to be ‘whichever one you’re listening to at the time’. However the Nelson Mass, really does stand out; it is such a powerful, uncompromising piece; Beethovenian one might even say, except that its sternness is so often relieved by Haydn’s irrepressible good humour. On CD7 here, John Eliot Gardiner goes for broke, and moments such as the Kyrie’s recapitulation, where the choir’s unison octaves are interpolated with soaring runs for the soprano, are hair-raisingly thrilling. Donna Brown is very impressive here, though a bit too bumpy in her phrasing of the Gloria. How like Haydn, after the deep sadness of the major key ‘et sepultus est’ to take us into ‘Et resurrexit’ in the minor key.

The supreme moment of drama comes towards the end of the Benedictus, where the stately, if slightly gloomy, process of the music is suddenly interrupted by implacable fanfares in trumpets and drums. Stunning, and it explains why Haydn called it Missa in angustiis – ‘Mass in times of stress’. The short but magnificent Te Deum in C is another welcome bonus.

CD8 is an ‘extra’ if you like, but a valuable one, containing as it does the quite rarely heard Stabat Mater. This is a fine and quite early piece, and was one of the works that truly established Haydn internationally. Funnily enough, the sombre mood of the Benedictus of the Nelson Mass finds an adumbration here in the opening movement. The performance would be worth hearing if only to catch the late lamented Anthony Rolfe Johnson in mellifluous voice in the tenor part; the other three soloists are of matching class. The London Chamber Choir sing superbly, and the so-called ‘Argo Chamber Orchestra’ — actually the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in disguise for contractual reasons — play stylishly. The scoring is interesting; strings, sometimes muted, two oboes alternating cors anglais, and organ continuo. Arguably, Stephen Darlington’s version on Griffin (GCCD 4029) has a stronger sense of period performance, but Heltay’s account completes this fine and rich collection in a very satisfactory way.

These masses are amongst the supreme achievements of choral music, and it has to be said that the wonderful Hickox set on the Chandos Chaconne label still leads the field. That said, this box really does have a lot going for it; quite apart from the brilliance of many of the performances, the sheer variety of approach, in every case entirely true to the spirit of the composer, is enough to give it an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Full Contents List

CD 1
Missa ‘Rorate coeli desuper’, Hob.XX11:3 [7:47]
Missa Cellensis in honorem Beatissimae Virginis Mariae, Hob.XX11:5 ‘Missae Sanctae Caeciliae’ [67:43]
Judith Nelson (soprano), Margaret Cable (contralto), Martyn Hill (tenor), David Thomas (bass), Christopher Hogwood (organ), Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, Academy of Ancient Music/Simon Preston
rec. 9-14 July 1979, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London

CD 2
Missa Brevis, Hob.XXII:1 [14:05]
Judith Nelson (soprano), Margaret Cable (contralto), Martyn Hill (tenor), David Thomas (bass), Christopher Hogwood (organ), Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, Academy of Ancient Music/Simon Preston
rec. 12-13 July 1977, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
Missa. Hob XXII:13 ‘Schöpfungmesse’ (‘Creation Mass’) [45:51]
April Cantelo (soprano), Helen Watts (contralto), Robert Tear (tenor), Forbes Robinson (bass), Stephen Cleobury (organ), Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge. Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/George Guest
rec. 1-3 August 1968, St. John’s College, Cambridge UK

CD 3
Missa in honorem Beatissimae Virginis Mariae, Hob. XXII:4, ‘Grosse Orgelmesse’ (‘Great Organ Mass’) [38:57]
Judith Nelson (soprano), Carolyn Watkinson (contralto), Martyn Hill (tenor), David Thomas (bass), Christopher Hogwood (organ), Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, Academy of Ancient Music/Simon Preston
rec. 4-6 July 1978, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
Missa Sancti Bernardi von Offida, Hob.XXII:10, ‘Heiligmesse’ [43:08]
Joanna Lunn (soprano), Sara Mingardo (contralto), Topi Lehtipuu (tenor), Brindley Sherratt (bass), Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
rec. 20-24 November 2001, The Colosseum, Watford, UK

CD 4
Missa Sancti Nicolai, Hob.XXII:6 ‘Nikolaimesse’ [27:50]
Judith Nelson (soprano), Shirley Minty (contralto), Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor), David Thomas (bass), Christopher Hogwood (organ), Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, Academy of Ancient Music/Simon Preston
rec. 12-13 July 1977, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
Missa Hob.XXII:12 ‘Theresienmesse’ [42:20]
Donna Brown (soprano), Sally Bruce-Payne (contralto), Peter Butterfield (tenor), Gerald Finlay(bass), Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
rec. 22-25 November 1997, The Colosseum, Watford, UK

CD 5
Missa Brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo, Hob.XXII:7
‘Kleine Orgelmesse’ (‘Little Organ mass’) [35:29]
rec. 27-28 July 1977 in St. John’s College, Cambridge UK
Missa, Hob.XXII:14 ‘Harmoniemesse’ [40:32]
Erna Spoorenberg (soprano), Helen Watts (contralto), Alexander Young (tenor), Joseph Rouleau (bass)
rec. 4-5 August 1966, St. John’s College, Cambridge UK

CD 6
Missa Cellensis, Hob.XXII:8 ‘Mariezellermesse’ [35:29]
Jennifer Smith (soprano), Helen Watts (contralto), Robert Tear (tenor), Benjamin Luxon (baritone) Brian Runnett (organ), Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/George Guest
rec. 27-28 July 1977, St. John’s College, Cambridge, UK
Missa in tempore belli, Hob.XXII:9 ‘Paukenmesse’ [37:44]
Joanne Lunn (soprano), Sara Mingardo (contralto), Topi Lehtipuu (tenor), brindley Sherratt (bass)
rec. 20-24 November 2001, The Colosseum, Watford, UK
Insanae et vanae curae [6:14]
rec. 20-24 November 2001, The Colosseum, Watford, UK

CD 7
Missa in angustiis, Hob.XXII:11 ‘Nelsonmesse’ [38:55]
Donna Brown (soprano), Sally Bruce-Payne (contralto), Peter Butterfield (tenor), Gerald Finlay (bass)
rec. 22-25 November 1997, The Colosseum, Watford, UK
Te Deum in C, Hob.XXIIc:2 ed. H.C. Robbins Landon [8:03]
Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
rec. 20-24 November 2001 at The Colosseum, Watford, UK

CD 8
Stabat Mater, Hob.XXbis [66:07]
Arleen Auger (soprano), Alfreda Hodgson (contralto), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Gwynne Howell (bass), John Birch (continuo), London Chamber Choir, Argo Chamber Orchestra/László Heltay
rec. 21-24 February 1979, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London

 

 




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