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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732 - 1809): Nelson Mass

[I] "Nelson Mass"
Jonty Ward, sopranoa; Hugh Cutting, altoa; Nick Pritchard, tenora; Tom Edwards, bassa
Choir of New College Oxford; New Century Baroque
Dir: Edward Higginbottom
rec: July 13 - 15, 2011, Oxford, Church of St Michael and All Angels, Summertown
Novum - NCR1385 (© 2012) (48'43")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Insanae et vanae curae (H XXI,1/13); Missa in angustiis in d minor 'Nelson Mass' (H XXII,11)a

[II] "Lord Nelson Mass"
Mary Wilson, sopranoa; Abigail Fischer, mezzo-sopranoa; Keith Jameson, tenora; Kevin Deas, bassa
Boston Baroque
Dir: Martin Pearlman
rec: April 16 - 17, 2013, Worcester, Mass., Mechanics Hall
Linn Records - CKD 426 (© 2013) (62'03")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Missa in angustiis in d minor 'Nelson Mass' (H XXII,11)a; Symphony in B flat (H I,102)

Score Mass
Score Symphony No. 102

After returning from his second visit to England Haydn - at the time generally considered the greatest composer in Europe – predominantly confined himself to the composition of large-scale works. Among them were the six masses which today are very much part of the standard repertoire of classical choral music. They were the result of an obligation to write a mass every year for the celebrations of the name-day of Marie Hermenegild, wife of his employer Prince Nicolaus II of Esterházy. The Nelson Mass was the third, and Haydn composed it shortly after having completed his oratorio Die Schöpfung.

The Mass was originally called Missa in Angustiis which can be translated as Mass in times of trouble or fear. Why exactly Haydn gave this name is not quite clear. Scholars have suggested several explanations. The best-known and most popular is that it was inspired by political circumstances: the threat to the Habsburg empire by Napoleon. Although this threat was repelled when the British admiral Lord Nelson won the Battle of the Nile (1-3 August 1798) Edward Higginbottom, in his liner-notes, points out that this news probably only reached Vienna after the completion of this mass. There are other explanations. Haydn was exhausted after completing Die Schöpfung and his precarious state of health at the time may have made him give this title to his mass. Then there is another option: the state of the music in the Esterházy household. The Prince had disbanded his wind band, and for this mass Haydn had to confine himself to parts for trumpet and timpani in addition to the strings.

Today this mass is best-known as Nelson Mass. Again there are various explanations as to when and how his name became associated with it. Some suggest that the dramatic character of this mass, and especially the extended role of the trumpets and timpani in the Kyrie and the latter part of the Sanctus gave food for this connection. This work became associated with the Admiral when he visited the Esterházy court in Eisenstadt in 1800, and attended a performance of the mass.

The role of the trumpets and timpani is even more striking because of the lack of woodwind and horns. This seems to be partly compensated for by the part for an organ whose chords in the right hand may be meant as a substitute for the woodwind. Haydn played this part himself in the first performance. However, throughout the mass its role is rather limited.

The soprano vocal part is remarkable. In masses of the time the soloists mostly play a modest role, and are sometimes used as a 'small choir' to create contrasts. Here the soprano has been given a virtuosic role, not unlike that of an opera star. In some performances that is exposed by a very operatic way of singing, with heavy vibrato and all. Martin Pearlman's recording is just one example: Mary Wilson acts like a diva, and her part is spoilt by an incessant wide vibrato. That was certainly not Haydn's intention. The solo voices are always part of the ensemble, and should blend with each other and with the choir. That is guaranteed in Higginbottom's performance as the four soloists are all members of the choir. There is no lack of technical brilliance in Jonty Ward’s performance. His singing is nothing short of miraculous but at the same time he is very much part of a whole. This performance is a team effort, and that gives it a great amount of coherence. That comes to the fore, for instance, in 'Qui tollis peccata mundi' (Gloria) where Haydn juxtaposes a bass solo and the choir. Tom Edwards gives a beautiful account of his part, but never moves away from the choir. The same goes for the short interventions of the soprano which perfectly merge into the tutti. It results in a much more satisfactory performance than Pearlman's: the soloists are too much independent from the choir; Kevin Deas makes the best impression and sings the solo in the Gloria quite well.

In between the Credo and the Sanctus Higginbottom has inserted the chorus Insanae et vanae curae, where in the liturgy the Offertory is performed. It is included as an independent work in the Haydn catalogue but was originally part of Haydn's oratorio Il ritorno di Tobia. Whether in its present form it is from Haydn's pen is not sure, but Higginbottom believes that stylistically it fits the Mass well and its content is also suitable. The opening line says: "Deluded and vain worries assault the mind." In order to create increased coherence the scoring has been adapted to that of the Mass. The parts of the woodwind and the horns are taken by the organ.

If we look at these recordings from the perspective of 'authenticity' the picture is mixed. First of all, all-male choirs were probably very much the standard at the time, and it seems likely that Haydn's masses were performed by such a choir. Therefore Higginbottom comes probably closer to the performance practice of Haydn's time than Pearlman. I have no access to the books by H.C. Robbins Landon, and therefore can't check whether he gives any information about the forces of the first performance. The Wikipedia article on this Mass suggests two female sopranos who could have taken the solo role. As admirable as Jonty Ward's singing is - and stylistically far better than Mary Wilson's - it seems hardly in line with the historical circumstances. The adaptation of the orchestral scoring of the motet Insanae et vanae curae is questionable. A composer adapting his score to different circumstances is one thing, a modern interpreter doing the same another. However, Haydn himself seems to have had a rather 'liberal' approach to the way his music was treated as can be concluded from, for instance, his attitude towards various arrangements of the Sieben Worte.

As far as the performance is concerned, there is hardly anything to complain about. The choir is excellent, and so is the orchestra. The key moments in this mass are well worked out. The soloists all do a very good job; only on a couple of occasions did I find Tom Edwards a bit weak on the lowest notes of his solo in 'Qui tollis'. So, setting aside the historical considerations mentioned above, this is a very good recording of one of Haydn's masterworks. I am sure I shall return to it, and it would be interesting to see other masses performed by these forces.

In contrast the performance by Boston Baroque is largely disappointing. I have already mentioned several aspects; add to that a less than ideal recording. The soloists are too much in front, whereas the choir has little presence. The sound is rather flat and lacks depth. In the Nelson Mass the playing of the orchestra is the best part, but it is disappointing in the Symphony No. 102. That is due to Martin Pearlman's interpretation which is pretty bland and lacks esprit. Here the recording is not satisfactory either, and that could well be the result of a less than ideal acoustic.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Kevin Deas
Abigail Fischer
Keith Jameson
Mary Wilson
Boston Baroque
Choir of New College Oxford
New Century Baroque

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