Haydn: Complete Masses / Burdick, Glover, Trinity Choir

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Some of Haydn’s very greatest and most life-affirming music in performances that match those qualities to a quite extraordinary degree.

The many CDs and sets issued in this anniversary year have provided an opportunity to rethink our reactions to Haydn’s output and to explore lesser known parts of it. The sheer quantity that he wrote as well as its quality means that demands on our purses and our time are already considerable, but I do urge you very strongly to make room for this issue. It contains some of Haydn’s very greatest and most life-affirming music in performances that match those qualities to a quite extraordinary degree. Whatever mood I have been in or however I have felt before listening to these discs I have always finished feeling markedly better. What a composer and what performances!

The last six of Haydn’s Masses, from the Missa in tempore belli (Hob.XXII.9) to the Harmoniemesse (Hob.XXII.14), are clearly amongst his greatest works but getting their character right in performance is much more difficult than one might suppose. I have listened to many performances live and on disc that simply missed the point by being too heavy, technically inadequate, badly balanced or just plain dull. The great virtue of the performances here is their constant alertness to the changing character of the music, and to its essential underlying rhythms. The words “dancing”, “bouncy” and “characterful” appear repeatedly in my notes. The performances are not perfect but the music’s underlying humanity is never in doubt. This applies possibly even more to the earlier and less frequently performed works. The Nikolaimesse for instance has a delightful rural charm, whereas the Cäcilienmesse is presented without apology as the amazing and virtuoso collection of styles that it comprises. I still find the Stabat Mater one of the composer’s less interesting works, but even this work seemed much more enjoyable than usual in this fresh, unstuffy and very clear performance.

What makes all of this surprising is that none of the performers, apart from Jane Glover who took over for the last three recordings, is well known, at least on this side of the Atlantic, and yet my comparisons give them the edge over starrier versions by Hickox, Guest and Bernstein - to mention a few I have listened to recently. The choir is that of Trinity Church, Wall Street, New York, and all the soloists are drawn from it. Bearing in mind Haydn’s virtuoso writing especially for the sopranos this might seem like a recipe for disaster but in fact the uniformly high quality of the soloists is one of the great glories of the set. Ann Hoyt, in particular, who sings soprano solos on most of the earlier recordings, is fully the equal of most of the much better known soloists on earlier sets. Her somewhat boy-like purity of tone and her sensitivity to the text and musical line are worth returning to over and over again. Maybe she is helped a little by the recording - it is difficult to judge the size of her voice as recorded - but the effect as it is presented here is stunning. Her main successor in the later recordings under Jane Glover - Nicole Palmer - is more conventional in tone but still well in command of the music. The many other soloists are also good, and above all work as a team, an essential quality in these works.

Unsurprisingly the rest of the choir are of a similar high standard, singing with accuracy, musicality and fervour which it would be hard to beat. The orchestra, sometimes listed as the REBEL Baroque Orchestra and at others as the Rebel Baroque Orchestra, are a period instrument group who play with real character. One surprise is the organ, which makes a delightfully burbling sound in its solo moments, but is apparently a digital instrument, the church’s pipe organ having been severely damaged on 9/11. [see footnote]

The real hero of the set is however the main conductor, J Owen Burdick, who was director of music at Trinity Church from 1990 to 2008 when he left under difficult circumstances. The bouncing rhythms, clear textures, varied articulation and sheer exuberance are surely the result of his work, and the great success of this set is largely the result of these factors. He does have some idiosyncrasies, certainly, in particular his liking for heavy slowing down at the end of sections of the Mass. After a while I came to expect this, if never to enjoy it, but it is a small price to pay for the quality of the rest of the performances. The three performances conducted by Jane Glover are clearly different in style, to my ears more conventional in their underlying rhythmic attack, but they are by no means an unworthy conclusion to the series.

Although the title of the box is “The Complete Haydn Masses” it does not include the two early Masses “Missa Sunt bona mixta malis” (Hob.XXII.2) and “Missa Rorate coeli desuper” (Hob.XXII.3). A note explains that this is because they are both fragmentary and of uncertain provenance, but given the relatively short length of some of the discs there would have been ample space for them, and perhaps also for some of the shorter sacred works such as the Te Deum. The Stabat Mater is included, getting a whole disc to itself, raising the issue as to why the choral version of The Seven Last Words might not also have been included. All of this is however unimportant. What matters is that this is set gives amazing satisfaction in music of supreme quality. For me this has been the highlight of my anniversary year listening.

-- John Sheppard, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: September 29, 2009

  • Catalog Number: 8508009

  • UPC: 747313800933

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 8

  • Composer: Franz Joseph Haydn

  • Conductor: Jane Glover, Owen Burdick

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

  • Performer: Andrew Nolen, Ann Hoyt, Bert K. Johnson, Daniel Mutlu, Daniel Neer, Dongsok Shin, Hai-Ting Chinn, Julie Liston, Kirsten Sollek, Luthien Brackett, Matthew Hensrud, Matthew Hughes, Nacole Palmer, Nathan Davis, Nina Faia, Richard Lippold, Sharla Nafziger, Stephen Sands