Conducting Haydn’s “Lord Nelson” Mass with Cambridge Concentus yesterday at First Church in Cambridge, Joshua Rifkin pointed to his use of the same sized ensemble heard at the work’s premier. Rifkin is best known for introducing one voice per part in Bach’s music 30 years ago, and his sense of historical accuracy continues to be instructive. Yet the riveting performance of such a powerful score by such modest forces was enlightenment.
Haydn composed the Mass in D minor, subtitled Missa Angustiis (“Mass in Time of Distress”), Hob. XXII:11 towards the end of his life, while Austria and most of Europe shook in anticipation of Napoleon’s next conquest. Financial pressures led his patron Nikolaus II Prince Esterházy to fire the wind players from the orchestra at his Eisenstadt estate, which forced Haydn to forego some lighter textures in his setting of the Mass. Lord Nelson’s stunning victory against the French shortly before the work’s premiere gave the piece its more popular moniker, while emphasizing the fine line between tragedy and triumph that trumpeter and artistic co-director David Kjar spoke of during an engaging pre-concert talk.
From the gripping, beseeching “Kyrie” and sweetly ascendant “Gloria” that followed, the eight voices and 13 instruments under Rifkin’s baton proved more than sufficient for this score’s emotional intricacies. Rifkin’s propulsive tempos made this a mass to tap your feet to, while offering orchestral transparency and dramatic plausibility. Glass-toned trumpets in the “Gloria” sounded fitting praises for the Maker, and the fugue “Credo” benefitted from translucent part separation as well as assertive rhythm. The small body of strings relished Haydn’s writing, providing a rocketing ascent for the “Et Resurrexit” and providing plush harmonies on the “Sanctus.” The full orchestra blasted out God’s entrance with beautiful foreboding in the “Benedictus.”
Given that the four soloists joined the four-voice choir for all of Haydn’s choruses, the stamina on stage was nearly as impressive as the voices filling the church. Haydn included several soaring moments for soprano, and Margot Rood’s resplendent voice illuminated the music while her sense of proportion and dramatic instincts never overshadowed her colleagues. The soprano feature “Et Incarnatus” revealed even more of this incredible voice: firm yet sweet, with a confident top, the sheer strength never overwhelmed Haydn’s lithe textures. Rood’s emphasis on “homo” (“man”) unearthed layers of tenderness and vulnerability. Her fellow vocalists were equally emotive in solo and ensemble, for example in bass Ulysses Thomas’s imploring “Miserere nobis” (“Have mercy on us”) and imposing “Qui sedes, ad dexteram Patris” (“You who sit, at the right hand of the Father”) during the “Qui Tollis.” Chorus, soloists and orchestra alike highlighted the fear, reverence, and ultimate resolve behind Haydn’s troubled Mass.
It was preceded Haydn’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in C Major (Hob. VIIa) for four strings, featuring violin soloist Marika Holmqvist. Despite the quartet’s springing introduction, Holmqvist got off to a rough start, with slips in intonation and rushed figures. Unfortunately, Haydn’s tuneful, spry “Allegro Moderato” didn’t lend itself to Holmqvist’s aggressive bowing, and fleet passages sounded rote rather than spontaneous. She relaxed her approach for the curves of Haydn’s Italianate second movement, and by the closing “Presto,” Holmqvist’s passages tumbled playfully, but problems in the upper register plagued her entire performance.
Throughout the concerto, four strings accompanied Holmqvist with a precise, lush sound, filling the space without overwhelming it. Like the robust yet nimble Mass to come, and as many sports fans would come to learn later that evening, size didn’t matter when it came to making an impact.