Haydn – Lord Nelson Mass [62:03]
Boston Baroque / Pearlman
Linn CKD426 (SACD) (2013)
To suggest that Haydn’s greatest work was written in 1798 would not be controversial, and pre-eminent Haydn scholar HC Robbins-Landon certainly agrees – but, rather than the breathtakingly ambitious oratorio ‘The Creation’, he nominates for this singular honour the Mass written while Haydn was recovering from his exhausting efforts on that preceding work. By this late stage in his career, Haydn was required only to produce a handful of Masses each year for his employer; referring to the dark cloud cast over Europe by Napoleon’s conquests, he named this one “Mass in a Time of Anxiety” but, a week before its premiere, news arrived of Nelson’s destruction of the French Navy at the Battle of the Nile, thus explaining its popular moniker. Nelson was to hear the work himself a couple of years later, during a visit to Esterhazy.
From the dramatic blare of brass and timpani in the opening movement, and the jubilant mood apparent almost throughout, there is never a doubt that that this is an exceptional work. The companion piece is one of the London Symphonies, no. 102, written four years earlier – it is, I think, the one that most closely presages what Beethoven was soon to achieve in the symphonic realm. The work’s true nickname, ‘Miracle’ – referring to a chandelier collapse at the premiere that passed without injury – has mistakenly been assigned by history to the 96th Symphony; though left unappellated here, I observe that it is becoming more common to rectify this error. The performance of both works has the sprightliness, transparency and precision of line that typically result when baroque specialists play classical-era repertoire; I also love the recording, which adds a touch of warmth, not to mention fine soundstaging, to Linn’s trademark clarity. This release has featured prominently in 2013 Disc of the Year lists, so you don’t even have to take my word for it! AF
Schubert – ‘Death & the Maiden’ + String Quintet [91:42]
Pavel Haas Quartet
Supraphon SU4110-2 (2013)
A fellow resident of Vienna, Beethoven’s music was a constant presence throughout Schubert’s life and the arc of development in his own substantial output of string quartets reflects the increasing gravitas that characterised the master’s later works. In the early 1820s, Schubert was concentrating on chamber music and what is today considered his finest string quartet, the D Minor (D810), dates from this period. It acquired the nickname ‘Death & the Maiden’ due to its quotation of excerpts from his song of that name, and the dark associations of its key – yet the poem on which the song is based viewed death as a friend, offering peace and rest, and there is no hint of morbidity. His own death was but weeks away when Schubert completed the String Quintet in C Major, a monumental work (at almost an hour long) scored for the unusual combination of string quartet plus additional cello. Interestingly, the recently-demised Beethoven had left unfinished a similar work in the same key, and evidence that mutual friends (not to mention Schubert himself) considered him to be Beethoven’s natural successor suggests a possible motive behind this work. If that were true, I think it would cause a significant revision in modern attitudes to Schubert, not to mention performance style!
The Pavel Haas Quartet give these works a beautifully nuanced performance, their youthful exuberance in the fast movements matched by the sonorous beauty of the slow. Sound quality is excellent – full, present and without edge, supported by a lovely, mildly-reverberant acoustic. The Supraphon label is associated with the golden age of audio but then seemed to drop off the radar, so I’m delighted to see it back and on top form. A compelling pairing of two of Schubert’s finest chamber works, consider this essential listening. AF
‘Grand Tour’ (Baroque Trio Sonatas) [308 mins]
Cedille CDR1002 (2013)
For some, the defining sound of the Baroque is the great oratorios of Handel or Bach’s sacred masterpieces; for others, the fiery concertos of Vivaldi or Corelli. For many, though, it is the exquisitely refined elegance of the trio sonata, produced in vast quantities right across Europe but destined not long to survive into the classical era. I was aware of the critical acclaim being heaped upon each of the individual releases comprising this boxed set – ‘An Italian Sojourn’, ‘A German Bouquet’, ‘A French Soiree’ and ‘An English Fancy’ – over the period 2007 to 2012, but somehow failed to acquire any of them.
Is it not said, though, that the last shall be first; those four discs, with their original liner notes, have been boxed together and offered at an unmissable price. The easiest way to understand the development of music throughout the Baroque era is by tracing the distinct sounds and structures endemic to these four nations; though the rich heritage of English music effectively ended with the death of Purcell, the legacy of each tradition is explored in an often unpredictable choice of programme. For a genre often thought ‘samey’, critics have invariably been struck as much by the variety inherent within each tradition as between them. This repertoire is close to the hearts of Trio Settecento (which includes well-known violinist Rachel Barton Pine), and their diligent research and preparation is as apparent as the affectionate warmth of their performances. Whether for the first-rate sound quality that Cedille routinely achieves, the thoroughness of a survey that encapsulates an entire genre of music in one collection, the irresistibly low price or the simple pleasure of generously-filled discs that delight from beginning to end, this release is eminently recommendable. That said, I’ve just heard the last (BIS 1995) of London Baroque’s similarly-formatted eight disc survey of the trio sonata, and it’s a belter – should that ever appear in a boxed set, we’ve got a serious dilemma (or is it “opportunity”?!). AF