In Concert – Soloists, Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / John Butt: Haydn: ‘Nelson’ Mass and ‘Trauer’ Symphony

Haydn
Symphony no.44 in E minor Hob.I:44 ‘Trauer’ (1772)
‘Ganz Erbarmen’ from The Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross Hob.XX:2/2 (1786, choral version 1796)
Missa in angustiis (‘Nelson’ Mass), Hob.XXII:11 (1798)

Sofie Ticciati (soprano), Bethany Horak-Hallett (mezzo-soprano), Hugo Hymas (tenor), Robert Davies (bass), Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / John Butt

Hall One, Kings Place, Friday 30 September 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

Full marks should go to the OAE and Kings Place planning teams for this concert. Somehow they anticipated that what was required on the last day of September 2022 was a ‘mass in time of fear’ – and in doing so unwitting delivered the ideal response at the end of a week of great political uncertainty. The subtitle was given by Haydn to a substantial work better known as the Nelson Mass, so called because it was performed in the presence of Nelson and Lady Hamilton when they visited the composer at Eisenstadt in 1800.

First, though, we heard a work from the composer’s Sturm und Drang period. His Symphony no.44, the only one of his 104 in the key of E minor, has the nickname Trauer on account of the performance of its slow movement at Haydn’s funeral. It falls in the middle of a particularly rich vein of creativity in the Haydn symphony, where he was exploring less common key centres and instrumental possibilities. This performance was given by just 17 players but they gave a sound that could have been made by an orchestra double the size. They caught the dark undertones of its lean and jagged first movement, reminding us of how dramatic Haydn symphonies can be. John Butt was an embodiment of the vigorous performance, drawing the wit and dance rhythms from the Menuetto but also enjoying the relative sweetness of the trio section, with outstanding high horn playing from Ursula Paludan Monberg. The muted Adagio was beautifully done, finding the serene corners of the major key, while the finale had terrific drive, the strings digging in with gritty staccato.

A curious inclusion followed, the second movement of the choral version of Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross. Concentrating on Christ’s promise to his fellow crucified prisoners that they too would see paradise, Haydn offers a vision of redemption that the four vocal soloists portrayed after a period of initial solemnity. The choir, positioned around the balcony, sang down to the audience and were ideally balanced by Butt, who was always cajoling them on to more.

He did likewise in an outstanding performance of the Nelson Mass, which was compelling from first note to last. Described by no less than Haydn scholar HC Robbins Landon as ‘arguably his greatest composition’, it began with a dramatic Kyrie, laying an immediate sense of occasion. With brass and timpani alongside the 17-strong chorus on the balcony, there was fear and tumult in the music, which reached an apex in the Benedictus, an extraordinary passage of writing for the time. Soprano Sofie Ticciati was a subtly commanding presence, especially in this section, and she had sterling harmonic support from fine mezzo-soprano Bethany Horak-Hallett, who came into her own with a terrific solo at the start of the Agnus Dei. Hugo Hymas and Robert Davies were excellent too, the latter’s burnished bass tones matching the sweet violins in the Qui tollis section of the Gloria.

The choir sang with composure but with great passion, too, mirroring the input of their conductor, who had the measure of the Kings Place acoustic. This gave the big numbers – Gloria, Credo and Agnus Dei especially – the reverberation they needed at the end to follow their emphatic conclusions. By the end of the latter movement the darkness was completely vanquished, Haydn’s firm beliefs given their surest possible foundation. This was an outstanding concert, and a memorable contribution to the Voices Unwrapped series at Kings Place. Here the voices were not just unwrapped, they were ringing in the venue’s recesses long after the audience had departed.