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Collegiate Chorale sings Haydn

New York
St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue
02/09/2009 -  
Joseph Haydn: Missa Brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo (Little Organ Mass) – Missa in Angustiis (Lord Nelson Mass)

Heather Hill, Katharine Dain (Sopranos), Ha-Ting Chinn (Mezzo-soprano), Douglas Purcell (Tenor), Neil Netherly (Baritone), Christopher Creaghan (Organist)
The Collegiate Chorale, Timothy Mount (Conductor)

The Collegiate Chorale

While much of Haydn’s massive output is being performed around the world this year, obviously the most appropriate music for the bicentennial of his death is the Catholic Mass. The composer, living far past his Biblical three-score-years-and-ten was a devout Catholic. Unlike his contemporary, Mozart, he never indulged in Masonic and other occult beliefs.

To perform this music in St. Thomas Church—though Episcopal and built less than a century ago, possibly the most beautiful Gothic church in all Manhattan—was a gift to any music journalist, and I eagerly waited walking through the glorious stone structure, listening to the Collegiate Chorale perform that oratorio which soars above all Haydn’s music, The Creation.

That, though, was not to be. The Collegiate Chorale performs so extensively each season, that instead of the expected Creation, I was surprised to hear two Masses, one entirely unknown to me. This error was mine, but I never regretted the change.

The “Lord Nelson” Mass is of course the most famous, and just because of its familiarity, a wee bit over ceremonial. Not the performance, of course. The Collegiate Chorale is anything but ritualistic. But the work, written for Lord Nelson when he condescended to visit the isolated Esterházy Palace was composed with fanfares, Baroque counterpoint and more high-flying vocalism than a Mass should be.

Not so with the earlier “Little Organ Mass”. It was probably originally written for a tiny ensemble: a few singers, two violins and a cello, as well as organ. Here the fine St. Thomas Church organ was the only instrument, but the Collegiate Chorale started with the most wonderful Kyrie coming through the church, and that continued throughout the always lyrical duration of the entire Mass.

During both the Credo and Gloria, I was startled to find that the usually transparent Latin of the Collegiate Choir was sounding like the Slavonic-language Mass of Janácek three nights before. Only later did I realize that the devout Mr. Haydn had a few apostate tricks up his sleeve. In this case, he would telescope the music of the “little” mass by having each of the four voices sing a different part of the liturgy together.

A naughty trick, but Papa Haydn was hardly devoid of humor! At any rate, he only did this for the missa brevis, not the more extended missa solemne.

At any rate, not the brevity but the sudden emotional changes—the abrupt alternation from fast rhythm in the Credo to a mystical slowness—were always interesting. The one soloist, soprano Heather Hill, was in almost all the sections, and her voice blended in beautifully with the chorus.

The “Lord Nelson” is a relatively more lengthy affair, but never exceeds its welcome. In fact, while the four soloists were fine, soprano Katherine Dain here performed bel canto tricks I would never expect to hear in any church.

But this Mass was like an old friend. First, the Credo beginning with chorus and soprano is like a mirror image of Creation’s “The Heavens Are Telling”. The fanfares and organ runs—a splendid organist in the famed Christopher Creaghan—were familiar parts of Haydn’s military commissions.

Best of all, the Collegiate Chorale under Timothy Mount continues the tradition started by Robert Shaw so many years ago, of offering effortlessly elegant sounds which, in this case, complemented its particularly elegant surroundings.

Harry Rolnick



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