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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Mass in C Major, ‘Missa Cellensis in honorem Beatissime Virginis Marie’, Hob. XXII:5
Johanna Winkel (soprano), Sophie Harmsen (mezzo-soprano), Benjamin Bruns (tenor), Wolf Matthias Friedrich (baritone)
RIAS Kammerchor, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin / Justin Doyle
rec. 2018, Konzerthaus, Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902300 [65:43]

First of all, we must clear up which Mass this is. Haydn wrote two C major Masses that are sometimes called Missa Cellensis. The toponym has nothing to do with Celle, the beautiful old town in Lower Saxony. Rather, it refers to Mariazell in Styria, a site of Marian pilgrimage for centuries, thanks to its possession of a miracle-working limewood Madonna. The Mass that is not recorded here is Hob. XXII:8, dating to 1782 and sometimes also known by the equivalent German term, Mariazellermesse. The Missa Cellensis which Justin Doyle has recorded, however, is an earlier work which – just to add to the confusion – is sometimes known as the Cäcilienmesse’ or Mass of St Cecilia (with whom, as far as I am aware, it has nothing in particular to do). Talking of confusion, when the estimable Anthony van Hoboken was compiling his catalogue of Haydn’s work, he believed it was the fifth Mass Haydn wrote (hence Hob. XXII:5); this, however, is now believed to make it sound later than it really is, and so one sometimes sees the work also masquerading under the title of Mass No. 3.

So when was it written? Again, I fear, no-one really knows. The Kyrie and Gloria are preserved in a manuscript dated 1766, but the rest of the Mass appears on paper whose watermark has been dated to 1773. This gave rise to the attractive notion that Haydn completed the whole work in 1766, that the part from the Credo onwards was subsequently lost or burnt, and that the composer later saved the day by copying it out from memory in 1773. Well, I would not put it past him. But Bernhard Schrammek, in Harmonia Mundi’s excellent liner note, argues persuasively that the Mass probably arose in two phases: Kyrie and Gloria in 1766, Credo, Sanctus, Bendictus and Agnus Dei in 1773. This certainly fits the manuscript evidence; and to my mind at least it also fits what we hear. The first two sections are much more expansive than the rest, and, if anything, even more joyful and celebratory (I doubt anyone ever wrote a Kyrie that sounds less like a penitent plea for mercy and more like a hymn of praise). Between them, they account for some 37 minutes, or around 56% of what is anyway Haydn’s longest Mass (the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, by contrast, occupy six minutes between them). I certainly would not want to argue that the movements on the manuscript from 1773 are any less inspired. The writing, however, is less complex, more economical, and all in all the composer seems to have calmed down – or maybe grown up – just a little.

Whatever the mysteries surrounding its title and origins, though, this is certainly a Mass that should be in everyone’s collection. Even more than some of the others, it is a work that radiates joy, a reflection of the fact that Haydn’s faith, though profound, was very much of the happiest and healthiest kind.

What, then, of the performance? The first thing you register is the perfectly tuned and balanced sound of the 35-strong professional RIAS Chamber Choir, as they embark on the tiny (50 seconds) but intensely beautiful slow introduction to the Kyrie. And throughout the disc the choral singing remains an unequivocal delight; it is technically superb and unfailingly musical. Comparably excellent are the 28-strong Akademie für Alte Musik, who are just the right size to balance well with the choir and soloists, and benefit from the clarity of Harmonia Mundi’s recording – made, wisely, in a concert hall, Berlin’s Konzerthaus, rather than in a church. Justin Doyle’s direction is not perhaps strikingly individual, but it is extremely well judged. His rhythms are light and airy, but he does comparable justice also to the work’s slower, more contemplative passages. Above all, his tempi are eminently well chosen and calibrated. This is no small merit in a work of over an hour which, in the tradition of eighteenth-century ‘cantata’ masses, consists in effect of seventeen largely independent movements. It is very much to Doyle’s credit that the numerous tempo changes never jar, and that the Mass’s whole unwieldly structure flows easily and naturally.

As to the soloists, the soprano and tenor both have voices a size larger than you might expect in ‘early music’, though it did come as a surprise to discover that both have already appeared in Wagner: Johanna Winkel as Eva and a Valkyrie, and Benjamin Bruns as Lohengrin. In any case, both are excellent. They sing beautifully, gracefully and with the necessary ardour. If in the end it is Winkel’s contribution that stays the longest in the memory, that is probably because she has rather more to do, notably in the relatively demanding Laudamus te and Quoniam tu solus sanctus. The mezzo, Sophie Harmsen, is good if a trifle anonymous; but Wolf Matthias Friedrich – perhaps the best known of the soloists – is something of a disappointment. He is, to be honest, pretty rough in his first appearance in the Domine Deus, combining uneven tone with slightly dodgy low notes and some surprisingly aspirated runs. Later on he seems to warm up, and one is grateful for his characterful contributions to the Et incarnatus est and Agnus Dei. Evenso, you cannot help reflecting that it is not for nothing that Haydn’s bass parts in the Masses are often taken by true basses (such as Brindley Sherratt, David Thomas or indeed Kurt Moll).

Overall, though, Doyle’s recording is a great success. Probably the choral singing is its biggest selling point; but the playing, conducting, most of the solo singing, and also the recording are comparably excellent. The booklet tells us that the performance was recorded live, but to be honest I managed to listen to it twice through on headphones without becoming aware of the fact. I also very much liked the documentation: the programme note is substantial and helpful, and both it and the full text of the Mass are provided in French, English and German. The booklet also follows the happy modern custom of listing all the performers by name; and its cover is appropriately adorned with an image of Raphael’s Sixtine Madonna, which is now in Dresden.

This is by no means the first distinguished performance of the Missa Cellensis Hob. XXII:5 with period forces: Simon Preston, Richard Hickox and Jos van Immerseel (review) all spring to mind. And it certainly is not the case that Justin Doyle sweeps the floor with any or all of these. On its own terms, though, and especially for the first-time buyer, this new version has a lot going for it. My reaction at the end of the performance was to reflect on what a wonderful musician and human being Haydn must have been, and to feel privileged – as always – to have spent an hour or so in his company. Such a response is always a good sign; maybe, indeed, it is recommendation enough.
Nigel Harris

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