in: Reviews

September 24, 2012

Cambridge Concentus Opens with Haydn


Cambridge Concentus launched its season yesterday at First Church in Cambridge with two works of Franz Joseph Haydn. Both written in 1799, they afforded the group opportunities to engage in the many expressive devices found in the music of the composer’s later years. Ultimately, the engagement was brilliant, but not without its hitches.

The program opened with four members of the Concentus performing Haydn’s String Quartet op. 77, No. 1, one of his last three pieces in that form. Being the mature work of a master of non-texted drama-in-Tonality, it bubbles with emotional contrast, both subtle and overt. Unfortunately, the delicate technique with which the performers approached the piece (one that is often associated with period performance) was not up to the task of fully emoting those contrasts. The players threaded their way skillfully yet lightly through all the movements, which did result in some truly beautiful moments, such as the opening of the Adagio. In general, however, the thread was too fine; where there should have been bounce and bite, such as the Minuet-Trio, there was instead a monochromatic, albeit lovely legato mush. The overall effect was oddly akin to watching a gymnast attempting a trampoline act on a doily.

The rest of the program was dedicated to Haydn’s Mass in B-flat, known as the Theresienmesse. Instead of the large-scale forces usually employed for this work, conductor Joshua Rifkin chose a “one-on-a-part” ensemble: four vocal soloists, another four for the chorus, and an instrumental complement of only 14 players, all on period instruments. As one would expect, the striking textural contrasts between solo and tutti passages were lost with this set-up, as was the generally impressive power that a big group can emit. What was gained, however, was stunning: the rich sonority of a vibrant meta-ensemble, a prismatic sort of “orchorustra” through which the music shone with a balanced and brilliant clarity. Overall, the piece is more subdued than Haydn’s more popular masses, yet is replete with the direct word-painting and deep, restrained emotionality that inhabits all his sacred works. Rifkin’s interpretation was wonderfully sensitive to this form of expression. Thoughtful, energetic, with an impeccably musical sense of phrasing, he and the ensemble were able to deliver the loveliness and liveliness of the work without slipping into Romantic weightiness. As a bonus, language aficionados were treated to an appropriately Germanic pronunciation of the liturgical Latin; it is a seemingly small detail that, when applied, exposes a fascinating layer of the music’s time and place.

If any complaint were to be had, it would be that the performance space was too live. Some of the more subtle sonic details in the instrumentation were lost, and the colors of the ensemble somewhat blurred in the echo-y wash of the church’s sanctuary. Nonetheless, it was a vivid and joyous performance, and this reviewer looks very much forward to the ensemble’s Biber program next February.

Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.


  1. Thanks to Tom Schnauber for the kind words about the Haydn mass. I should point out, however, that I didn’t “choose” the size of the ensemble–credit for that goes to Haydn himself, as revealed both from documents of the chapel at Eisenstadt and by the original performance materials.

    Comment by Joshua Rifkin — September 24, 2012 at 7:28 pm

  2. Thank you, Tom, for sharing your thoughts. Would you perhaps clarify what drives the expectation that one-voice-per-part (OVPP) performance diminishes the contrast between solo and tutti textures? It seems to me that as the sources reveal the size of Haydn’s ensemble, so too does Haydn’s music reflect a deep sensitivity to the size of the ensemble and to the instrumentation as well. It follows then that the music itself (and its orchestration) encodes any intention by Haydn–presuming one can reasonably assume such intention–to display “impressive power.”

    Thanks again.

    Comment by Max DeCurtins — September 24, 2012 at 11:30 pm

  3. Hi Max,

    As both you and Joshua Rifkin rightly point out in your comments, the ensemble size used here was the one Haydn originally intended. However, all the performances (recordings) that I know of use a “beefed up” chorus and orchestra, to the point where, to many (most?) listeners, that is the “normal” sound. Regardless of intention, from a purely acoustic standpoint, the contrast between single singers or players and a large tutti is much more stark than in the one-on-a-part set-up, both in terms of texture and amplitude. To my ear, the mastery of Haydn’s writing is reflected in the fact that the piece works well with both types of ensembles, though each can reveal a different aspect of the music.

    Comment by Tom Schnauber — September 25, 2012 at 9:05 am

  4. I’ve had the pleasure of singing almost all of Haydn’s late masses in the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt, and I can tell you that I wish, at least in some regards,that we had used reduced forces. The acoustics and space in the Bergkirche are not hospitable to a 100+ person choir/orchestra. I’m sorry to have missed this glorious concert!

    Comment by Rebecca Marchand — October 9, 2012 at 4:39 am

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