Haydn’s Nelson Mass arrives in Cardiff under full sail

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rebel, Purcell, Haydn: Anna Dennis (soprano), Hilary Summers (contralto), Rupert Charlesworth (tenor), Edward Hawkins (bass), BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales / Christian Curnyn (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 6.4.2023. (PCG)

Nelson Mass in Cardiff’s Hoddinott Hall © BBC NOW

Jean-Féry RebelChaos from Les Élemens
Purcell – Suite from King Arthur
HaydnMissa in angustiis (Nelson Mass)

Jean-Féry Rebel’s ballet score Les élements was essentially unknown until Christopher Hogwood’s pioneering recording in 1980. Its revival since then was surely inevitable once audiences began to appreciate the composer’s breath-takingly vivid evocation of chaos in his opening movement. When we last heard this music in the same hall in April 2015, I noted that the score comprehensively trumps Haydn’s relatively conventional depiction of chaos at the opening of Creation. Rebel triumphantly has his orchestra simultaneously proclaiming all the notes of the D minor scale in an opening blast of sound, and then sustains the clustered harmony bar after bar, tentatively and almost haphazardly adding and subtracting individual lines. And yet, after this amazing opening he allowed himself nowhere else to go. The remainder of the score gallantly attempts to match the individual elements of mediaeval alchemy – earth, air, wind and fire – in instrumental colour and ornamental melody. Those attempts simply petered out into a series of generally undistinguished courtly dances, clearly designed to smooth down any ruffled feathers among Louis XV’s well-mannered but essentially empty-headed courtiers. With eminent good sense, we were only given the iconoclastic opening movement. Even after all these years, it has not lost its power to shock, even though the effect inevitably diminishes on subsequent hearings.

Henry Purcell similarly tried to appeal to a frivolous aristocratic public taste. The effect was not a series of dramatically cogent operas, even if his Dido and Aeneas demonstrates he was well capable of such undertaking. Instead, he wrote a raft of practically unstageable and totally undramatic semi-operas based on travesties of Shakespeare and other authors; in the end, they were only designed to titillate a jaded audience. Such commercial motivation could not, naturally, confound Purcell’s innate instinct to rise to the occasion when he had the opportunity to set the miserable texts with which he was confronted. But even those moments are separated by whole reams of basically functional theatre music of variable merit and inspiration.

It is not surprising that Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst, ardent Purcellians both, controversially gutted Purcell’s score for their edition of The Fairy Queen. Here we were probably given just about the right dosage of King Arthur. Sensibly, the selection included both vocal and instrumental numbers, including the star soprano aria Fairest isle. Anna Dennis sang with crystal purity of tone. Still, just like tenor Rupert Charlesworth in How blest are shepherds, she made very few of her words audible. That is an unusual deficit in Purcell, so we were grateful for the texts in the BBC’s free programme. All soloists enthusiastically allowed themselves considerable freedom of ornamentation, generally tasteful and neatly delivered. The chorus sung lustily in a couple of numbers. It seemed odd to deprive them of their closing number and instead to substitute the opening chaconne, especially when the requisite brass was there, even if not required in the other movements.

The brass was on hand for Haydn’s Nelson Mass in the second half of the programme. It was the original version, with organ substituting for the woodwind whom Haydn’s patron Prince Esterházy had pensioned off as an economy measure. (Did not the BBC, with the current plans to cut their musical establishments, blush to mention this?) Many critics have indeed preferred Haydn’s original scoring, but surely he would still have employed a full-scale church organ to match his trenchant forces of trumpets, drums and strings, let alone the chorus. Instead of the usual Hoddinott Hall instrument, we got here a small chamber organ gone from sight for most of the time. When it did occasionally penetrate, as in isolated passages in the Qui tollis, it sounded weedy and ineffectual. The insistence on the violins playing without vibrato, even in the warmly lyrical phrases of the Benedictus and Agnus Dei, also smacked of an insistence on period practice. That sat uneasily in a performance where the substantial BBC National Chorus of Wales (92 listed in the programme) comfortably outnumbered any choir Haydn could have envisaged at Esterháza. Given those choral forces, we really could have done with the woodwind and horn parts that Haydn added for later performances and included in the 1803 score, where the solo passages in the Qui tollis were transferred to the oboe.

The soloists made a well-matched team, although the problems of diction that had afflicted Anna Dennis and Rupert Charlesworth in the Purcell seemed to affect their Latin too. The resonant Edward Hawkins, unfortunately, was weakest in the low register where Haydn launched many of his thematic fugal statements. Most effective was Hilary Summers, although her contralto register was sparingly employed in a part that otherwise lies quite high for a mezzo-soprano. One was struck once again by the sheer difficulty of Haydn’s writing for the chorus. The sopranos often soared up to a high B and the tenors in the Agnus Dei twice launched out on a forte high A in their fugal statements of the main theme. One has to note and admire how supremely confidently the choir handled these challenges. Charles Curnyn kept the performance moving forward. The string players delivered spick-and-span figurations in their bubbling accompaniments, and menace came from the ever-present trumpets and drums.

The programme, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, is available for a further thirty days on BBC Sounds.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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