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Yannick Nézet-Séguin [Photo by Marco Borggreve courtesy of Askonas Holt]
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Haydn and Strauss, LPO

Haydn’s settings of the Mass ought to be heard incessantly, in churches and in the concert hall.

Joseph Haydn, Missa in Angustiis, ‘Nelson Mass’, Hob. XXII:11, and Richard Strauss, Ein Heldenleben, op.40

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Yannick Nézet-Séguin [Photo by Marco Borggreve courtesy of Askonas Holt]


For reasons that elude me, they are not, even this, the so-called Nelson Mass, arguably the most celebrated of all, if only on account of his nickname. Indeed classical sacred music in general, Mozart’s included, with a very few obvious exceptions, is unaccountably neglected by most concert programmers. (When did you last hear Beethoven’s Mass in C major, op.86, any of Gluck’s sacred music, anything that was not a Mass setting from the Salzburg Mozart, or indeed any of the shorter liturgical works by Schubert?) Perhaps performers, audiences, bureaucrats alike still have the Whiggish canard that the Enlightenment was somehow concerned with secularisation seared into their incurious minds; if so, send them away with a copy of Ernst Cassirer’s venerable Philosophy of the Enlightenment in one hand and a good few scores or recordings in the other. In any case, let us hope that the London Philharmonic will programme more of this wonderful repertoire, especially if performed with such success as it was here, under Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

The ‘Kyrie’ plunged us immediately into a world of high liturgical, symphonic, well-nigh operatic, drama, the D minor tonality of Don Giovanni ringing in our ears. It was driven, but not too much; Nézet-Séguin knew where to yield too. The London Philharmonic Choir, here as elsewhere, shone, fullness of tone and precision in no sense antithetical. Sarah-Jane Brandon imparted the necessary note of wartime terror to the return of the ‘Kyrie’ material, form sharply delineated by Nézet-Séguin. A propulsive opening to the ‘Gloria’ shared that marriage of choral weight and transparency. It struck me, perhaps for the first time, how much Haydn’s writing for soprano against choir prefigures the ‘Hymn’ in The Creation, which lay, after all, just around the corner. The setting of the words ‘miserere nobis’ seemed to evoke Mozart — which of course in many senses it does, Haydn always keen to learn at the hands of the younger genius.

A particularly Haydnesque combination of Baroque sturdy figured bass, such as one always finds in his setting of the Creed (‘Tu es Petrus’) and Beethovenian symphonism characterised the opening section of the ‘Credo’. It was nicely shaded too, without fussiness. The cult of alte Musik furthered by Gottfried van Swieten, Viennese patron to Mozart and Haydn, as well as librettist (of sorts) for Haydn’s oratorios, was heard here for the inspirational influence it was: none of today’s mere antiquarianism (at best), but a vital force, informing performance and composition alike. Just listen to the words ‘et homo factus est’, Handel channelled via Haydn’s loving yet vigorous offices. The final section, like much of the rest of the faster material, was taken at a challenging tempo, or at least a tempo that would have proved challenging, had it not been for the excellence of orchestral and choral execution.

The ‘Sanctus’ was properly imploring, taken at a magnificently slow tempo, without the slightest hint of dragging. ‘Pleni sunt cœli...’ came as a thunderbolt of joy. A flowing contrast to both parts of that preceding movement was offered by a flowing ‘Benedicturs’. Militarism made its point, chillingly, yet commendably without the exaggeration one would most likely have endured from latter-day ‘authenticke’ freak-shows. Textures were clear and weighty (where necessary). Nézet-Séguin handled the ‘Agnus Dei’ with loving tenderness. Sarah Connolly offered excellent solo work at the opening, soon joined by her equally fine colleagues, Brandon, Robin Tritschler, and Luca Pisaroni. ‘Dona nobis pacem’ brought a wonderful, elating feeling of choral and orchestral release. Was anyone a more joyful contrapuntist — or homophonist! — than Haydn? As he is alleged to have said to a (slightly dubious) biographer, Giuseppe Carpani, ‘At the thought of God my heart leaps for joy, and I cannot help my music doing the same.’

Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben followed the interval. It is difficult to think of anything meaningful to connect the two works, so it was better approached simply as a contrast — which indeed it was. Nézet-Séguin and the LPO revelled in the opening kaleidoscope of colour, which sometimes, quite rightly, tended a little towards the phantasmagorically nauseous. The LPO’s cellos shone particularly, horns (led by David Pyatt) here and elsewhere quite glorious. Strauss’s critics were properly carping; Pieter Schoeman’s violin solo offered a delectable ‘feminine’ contrast, clean but not clinical, sinuous but not cloying. It was an interesting reading taken as a whole: not overtly symphonic, yet by the same token certainly not without form. Rather, the latter seemed to emerge from the material, which is doubtless as it should be. (Not that there is just one way of that happening, of course.) Battle was instrumental in more than one sense, a battery of brass and percussion both impressing and amusing: Strauss the inveterate ironist. It was brutal, but in a toy soldiers’ sort of way. There were a few occasions when I thought Nézet-Séguin might have relaxed a little more, but that was certainly preferable to meandering, always a danger in this score. The difficulty of shooting’s one bolt too early — I am not even convinced that Karajan always showed himself innocent of that all-too-seductive mistake — was avoided completely: quite an achievement.

Mark Berry

Sarah-Jane Brandon (soprano); Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano); Robin Tritschler (tenor)

Luca Pisaroni (bass-baritone); London Philharmonic Choir (chorus master: Neville Creed); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Saturday 24 November 2012.

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