Haydn and Strauss, LPO

For reasons that elude me, they are not, even this,
the so-called Nelson Mass, arguably the most celebrated of all, if
only on account of his nickname. Indeed classical sacred music in general,
Mozart’s included, with a very few obvious exceptions, is unaccountably
neglected by most concert programmers. (When did you last hear Beethoven’s
Mass in C major, op.86, any of Gluck’s sacred music, anything that was not a
Mass setting from the Salzburg Mozart, or indeed any of the shorter liturgical
works by Schubert?) Perhaps performers, audiences, bureaucrats alike still have
the Whiggish canard that the Enlightenment was somehow concerned with
secularisation seared into their incurious minds; if so, send them away with a
copy of Ernst Cassirer’s venerable Philosophy of the Enlightenment
in one hand and a good few scores or recordings in the other. In any case, let
us hope that the London Philharmonic will programme more of this wonderful
repertoire, especially if performed with such success as it was here, under
Yannick NÈzet-SÈguin.

The ‘Kyrie’ plunged us immediately into a world of high liturgical,
symphonic, well-nigh operatic, drama, the D minor tonality of Don
ringing in our ears. It was driven, but not too much;
NÈzet-SÈguin knew where to yield too. The London Philharmonic Choir, here as
elsewhere, shone, fullness of tone and precision in no sense antithetical.
Sarah-Jane Brandon imparted the necessary note of wartime terror to the return
of the ‘Kyrie’ material, form sharply delineated by NÈzet-SÈguin. A
propulsive opening to the ‘Gloria’ shared that marriage of choral weight
and transparency. It struck me, perhaps for the first time, how much Haydn’s
writing for soprano against choir prefigures the ‘Hymn’ in The
, which lay, after all, just around the corner. The setting of the
words ‘miserere nobis’ seemed to evoke Mozart — which of course in many
senses it does, Haydn always keen to learn at the hands of the younger

A particularly Haydnesque combination of Baroque sturdy figured bass, such
as one always finds in his setting of the Creed (‘Tu es Petrus’) and
Beethovenian symphonism characterised the opening section of the ‘Credo’.
It was nicely shaded too, without fussiness. The cult of alte Musik
furthered by Gottfried van Swieten, Viennese patron to Mozart and Haydn, as
well as librettist (of sorts) for Haydn’s oratorios, was heard here for the
inspirational influence it was: none of today’s mere antiquarianism (at
best), but a vital force, informing performance and composition alike. Just
listen to the words ‘et homo factus est’, Handel channelled via Haydn’s
loving yet vigorous offices. The final section, like much of the rest of the
faster material, was taken at a challenging tempo, or at least a tempo that
would have proved challenging, had it not been for the excellence of orchestral
and choral execution.

The ‘Sanctus’ was properly imploring, taken at a magnificently slow
tempo, without the slightest hint of dragging. ‘Pleni sunt cúli…’ came
as a thunderbolt of joy. A flowing contrast to both parts of that preceding
movement was offered by a flowing ‘Benedicturs’. Militarism made its point,
chillingly, yet commendably without the exaggeration one would most likely have
endured from latter-day ‘authenticke’ freak-shows. Textures were clear and
weighty (where necessary). NÈzet-SÈguin handled the ‘Agnus Dei’ with
loving tenderness. Sarah Connolly offered excellent solo work at the opening,
soon joined by her equally fine colleagues, Brandon, Robin Tritschler, and Luca
Pisaroni. ‘Dona nobis pacem’ brought a wonderful, elating feeling of choral
and orchestral release. Was anyone a more joyful contrapuntist — or
homophonist! — than Haydn? As he is alleged to have said to a (slightly
dubious) biographer, Giuseppe Carpani, ‘At the thought of God my heart leaps
for joy, and I cannot help my music doing the same.’

Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben followed the interval. It is difficult
to think of anything meaningful to connect the two works, so it was better
approached simply as a contrast — which indeed it was. NÈzet-SÈguin and the
LPO revelled in the opening kaleidoscope of colour, which sometimes, quite
rightly, tended a little towards the phantasmagorically nauseous. The LPO’s
cellos shone particularly, horns (led by David Pyatt) here and elsewhere quite
glorious. Strauss’s critics were properly carping; Pieter Schoeman’s violin
solo offered a delectable ‘feminine’ contrast, clean but not clinical,
sinuous but not cloying. It was an interesting reading taken as a whole: not
overtly symphonic, yet by the same token certainly not without form. Rather,
the latter seemed to emerge from the material, which is doubtless as it should
be. (Not that there is just one way of that happening, of course.) Battle was
instrumental in more than one sense, a battery of brass and percussion both
impressing and amusing: Strauss the inveterate ironist. It was brutal, but in a
toy soldiers’ sort of way. There were a few occasions when I thought
NÈzet-SÈguin might have relaxed a little more, but that was certainly
preferable to meandering, always a danger in this score. The difficulty of
shooting’s one bolt too early — I am not even convinced that Karajan always
showed himself innocent of that all-too-seductive mistake — was avoided
completely: quite an achievement.

Mark Berry

Sarah-Jane Brandon (soprano); Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano); Robin
Tritschler (tenor)

Luca Pisaroni (bass-baritone); London Philharmonic Choir (chorus master:
Neville Creed); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Yannick NÈzet-SÈguin
(conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Saturday 24 November 2012.

image_description=Yannick NÈzet-SÈguin [Photo by Marco Borggreve courtesy of Askonas Holt]
product_title=Joseph Haydn, Missa in Angustiis, ‘Nelson Mass’, Hob. XXII:11, and Richard Strauss, Ein Heldenleben, op.40
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Yannick NÈzet-SÈguin [Photo by Marco Borggreve courtesy of Askonas Holt]