Haydn: Nikolaimesse, Nelson Mass / Burdick, Rebel, Trinity Choir

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Challenges even the best - a bargain alternative to Trevor Pinnock.

Naxos already had a decent recording of the ‘Nelson’ Mass (8.554416, with the ‘Little Organ’ Mass, Hob.XXII/7) on which soloists, the Hungarian Radio Chorus and the Nikolaus Esterházy Sinfonia were conducted by Béla Drahos. The new recording, Volume 3 of the Naxos series of the Haydn Masses, is also available in an 8-CD.

The Nikolaimesse, recorded in 2002, gets the new recording off to a very good start. The music is lighter, less vintage Haydn than its more familiar companion, with mainly brisk tempi much in the manner of the short early Masses which Mozart composed for his Salzburg patron Archbishop Coloredo. It also receives a fine performance and recording. The soloists don’t merit a listing on the rear insert, but they are named inside the booklet, as they deserve to be. If I select Ann Hoyt, the soprano, for special praise, that should not be at the expense of the others.

To be honest, I had not expected much from this CD - I hadn’t heard of any of the performers and I’d forgotten the warm reception which the complete box had received - but the performance of the Nikolaimesse alone makes it worth the modest price. All concerned convince me that this early work is at least the equal of any of Mozart’s Masses, with the exception of the Coronation (K317) the ‘Great’ Mass (K427)and, of course, the Requiem (K626).

The ‘Nelson’ Mass is, I think, at least the equal of the three best Mozart Masses. I shall continue to give it that name as a kind of shorthand, though it has very little to do with Lord Nelson: Haydn nicknames have a habit of sticking even when they are inappropriate - there is at least enough evidence to doubt that it was at a performance of Symphony No.96 that the heavy chandelier narrowly missed causing serious injury, yet the name ‘Miracle’ continues to be attached to that work. Haydn himself called it Missa in angustiis, Mass in straitened times, but it’s easier and shorter to continue to call it the ‘Nelson’.

The opening Kyrie announces that this is a more serious work than the Nikolaimesse. As Jennifer More Glagov notes in the excellent booklet, the lack of wind players - the Prince had just dismissed them as an economy measure - apart from three (specially hired?) trumpets gives the work an undeniably martial tone.

The performers again give an excellent account of themselves. Only Ann Hoyt remains from the earlier line-up and continues to sing impressively - my wife came in as I was listening and was very surprised to discover that this was the voice of a singer whom neither she nor I had heard before. Naxos and others please note, we want to hear more of her. The other soloists and the choir also step up to the plate and the recording, though thicker than for the earlier work, recorded five years earlier, is more than adequate. The last semi-professional performance of the ‘Nelson’ that I heard was spoiled by a soprano who out-sang everyone else, but that is certainly not the case here. I understand that all the soloists are members of the Trinity Choir, which must make it a formidable place for the musically inclined to worship.

John Sheppard (hereafter JS) complained of Burdick’s habit of slowing at certain points, but some of these are traditional. In the Creed, for example, the slowing at the end of track 16 on the words descendit de cælis prepares for the more marked traditional emphasis on et incarnatus est in the next section, where it used to be expected that all would kneel or bow deeply. In any case, JS soon began to be as untroubled by this practice as I was.

William Hedley (hereafter WH) commented on the reverberant acoustic of the Trinity Church but I really was not troubled by this - different audio systems react differently to reverberant recordings. Nor was I really troubled by the other detailed criticisms which he makes. Rather than repeat these here, I refer you to his review. Whilst I admit the validity of just about all of them, I cannot consider them a serious handicap to an overall recommendation.

WH is more than a little hard on the diction - the syllables are frequently chopped up in the wrong places, but the demise of Latin in the school curriculum makes it almost inevitable that a choir’s familiarity with that language can no more be taken for granted than a knowledge of Japanese. (Actually, the latter is a more frequent visitor to the modern UK secondary curriculum). Haydn would have expected to hear the harder Austro-Germanic pronunciation of Latin, with hard ‘g’ in virginis, and ‘c’ in crucifixus, for example; I’m pleased to report that all concerned here take the softer Italianate course.

JS raises the possibility that the set as a whole is superior even to Hickox (Chandos CHAN0599, also available separately) or Guest (Argo/Decca). I’m not quite sure that I would go that far, but I was impressed enough by the single CD under consideration to wish to sample more of the set via the Naxos Music Library.

I’ve already praised the quality of the Naxos notes. One small complaint concerns the absence of texts, but the Tridentine Latin Mass is pretty well known and the texts and translations are available online, as indicated above: they can be yours even without buying the CD.

Overall, I think that WH is right to prefer John Eliot Gardiner (Philips 470 2862, with the Theresienmesse) and Trevor Pinnock (DG Archiv 423 0972, with the Te Deum). I recommended the Pinnock version of the ‘Nelson’ Mass as Download of the Month in my May 2009 Download Roundup) and thoroughly agree with WH that it offers a life-enhancing experience, but I can’t imagine purchasers of the present CD being disappointed with J Owen Burdick’s performances. Having heard the recording right through once, I couldn’t wait to hear it all again, instead of taking the usual time out to gather my impressions. Go for Pinnock for the best - even at full price and rather short value - but the new Naxos makes a very fine and less expensive alternative.

-- Brian Wilson, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8572123

  • UPC: 747313212378

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Franz Joseph Haydn

  • Conductor: Owen Burdick

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: New York Trinity Church Choir, Rebel Baroque Orchestra

  • Performer: Ann Hoyt, Luthien Brackett, Richard Lippold, Stephen Sands