in: Reviews

December 7, 2010

Lesser-Known, Accomplished Haydn

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On Saturday, December 4, at Sanders Theater the Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus joined with Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston, conducted by Kevin Leong, to present two choral works of Joseph Haydn: O Jesu, te invocamus and the so-called Theresienmesse — “Maria Theresa Mass.” The first piece is a contrafactum: a work whose original text has been replaced by another; in this case the last chorus (“O caelites, vos invocamus”) of Haydn’s 1768 occasional cantata, Applausus, was used. The haphazard setting of the new text in surviving sources, however, casts doubt on his involvement with the contrafactum, so Leong created a new edition for this performance, restoring the logic of Haydn’s original word setting.

The main work on the program was the 1799 mass setting, one of six written to celebrate name-days of Princess Maria Hermenegild, wife of Haydn’s patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy II. As the work is simply titled “Mass” in the sources, it is uncertain how its moniker originated, but the likeliest eponymous candidate is Maria Theresa of the Two Sicilies, wife of the Habsburg Emperor Franz II. An admirer of Haydn, she owned a copy of this Mass, probably the source of the rumor that he had composed it for the Empress herself. A dedicated patron of the Viennese musical scene, she was also a gifted soprano and pianist; additionally, she is historically significant as the last Holy Roman Empress and first Empress of Austria.

The contrafactum is an exuberant and energetic work to which the performers responded with enthusiasm. Robust homophonic writing alternates with episodes of polyphony; the large chorus of some 160 voices was notable for clean-cut attacks and releases in the former and clear textures in the latter. The choral diction was occasionally variable but mostly clear. Leong’s precise conducting also elicited crisply rhythmic playing from the orchestra and maintained good balances with the chorus. I was grateful to make the acquaintance of this work, and in a fine performance to boot.

For the mass, the above performers were joined by an excellent solo quartet: soprano Deborah Selig, mezzo-soprano Tania Mandzy, tenor Lawrence Jones, and baritone Anton Belov. Throughout the mass, Haydn uses the quartet in alternation with the chorus, giving each soloist brief moments to sing alone but always soon joined by the other soloists, eschewing arias altogether. Another unusual feature of this mass is its sound texture, owing to a much-reduced complement of wind instruments (no oboes, flutes, or horns).

The mass’s Kyrie begins a series of innovative treatments by Haydn, the movement book-ended by slow, gently dignified music. After a brief choral opening, the solo quartet enters, beginning alternation with the large chorus. At the outset the quartet’s internal balance distinctly favored the soprano and bass, but thereafter this improved considerably. The centerpiece of the movement is an energetic fugue, which continued to display fine choral and orchestral discipline.

Gloria is also in a tripartite structure, but reverses the tempo scheme of the Kyrie, with two fast sections framing a central slow one. There was again impressive choral ensemble in tricky passages such as “Et in terra pax” with its many inserted rests. There were more characteristic Haydn surprises, most notably a sudden shift to C-minor leading into “Qui tollis.” The sustained notes on “peccata mundi” were perhaps the only point all evening when the choral sopranos were very slightly under pitch, but the final, a cappella “Miserere nobis” was beautiful and moving. The Gloria’s concluding “Amen” enjoyed juxtaposing some rather hair-raising parallel descending diminished-7th chords in the quartet with much more conventional choral writing.

Credo benefited from effective contrasts of articulation and dynamics. The opening is quite traditional, the chorus singing in unison in longer note values against a continuous stream of orchestral sixteenth notes. Haydn also took obvious opportunities for word painting, particularly the falling lines in “descendit de coelis.” In the “Et incarnatus est” section the quartet gave full expression to the plangent sighing figure of “Passus” (“he suffered”) and the anguished chromatic writing of “et sepultus est” (“he was buried”). Near the end of the movement there was a surprise sudden shift from duple to gigue-like triple meter (6/8) at “Et vitam venturi”; the potentially treacherous transition was handled smoothly and with aplomb by all the performers. In the final “Amen” the quartet singers got their brief moment in the sun with some showy coloratura, but the chorus got the final word.

Sanctus featured additional dramatic contrasts of dynamics and tempo, beginning at moderate pace but becoming suddenly much faster at “Pleni sunt coeli.” And whereas most composers treat the succeeding Benedictus as a sort of pendant to the Sanctus, here the two movements are utterly distinct. Sanctus, in the mass’s home key of B-flat, is dignified and stately; Benedictus is rather droll and in the quite surprising key of G-major (a sharp key). The long introduction’s witty string writing features multiple sharp dynamic contrasts within single phrases, liberal use of sixteenth-note runs, and playful grace notes. These grace notes even find their way into the choral writing in due course. Who else but Haydn could inject humor so effectively in a setting of the mass?

The G-major Benedictus prepared the way for the arresting G-minor opening of Agnus Dei. This was a tribute to Mozart, quoting the jagged opening phrase of the younger composer’s G-minor Symphony No. 25 of 1773. At Leong’s behest, chorus and orchestra made drama of the many dynamic contrasts and the tug-of-war between G-minor and the relative B-flat major. This was only resolved with the quartet’s entry on “Dona nobis pacem” in B-flat. More dialogue ensued between solo quartet and chorus, including imitative counterpoint and culminating in a powerful conclusion. Our gratitude goes to Kevin Leong, Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus, and Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra for presenting lesser-known Haydn in an accomplished performance.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. Currently, he sings in the choir of Trinity Church and accompanies the Boston Choral Ensemble under Miguel Felipe.

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