Haydn: Mass in B flat, Hob. XXII:13 (Schöpfungsmesse) Mass in B flat, Hob. XXII:14 (Harmoniemesse)

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COMPOSERS: Haydn
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: Mass in B flat, Hob. XXII:13 (Schöpfungsmesse) Mass in B flat, Hob. XXII:14 (Harmoniemesse)
PERFORMER: Ruth Ziesak, Joanne Lunn (soprano), Bernarda Fink, Sara Mingardo (mezzo-soprano), Christoph Prégardien, Topi Lehtipuu (tenor), Oliver Widmer, Brindley Sherratt (bass); Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
CATALOGUE NO: 470 297-2
Gardiner’s performances of Haydn’s two last Masses have much in common with the excellent versions from Richard Hickox on Chandos. With ultra-responsive choirs and crack period orchestras, the two conductors choose (mainly) similar lively tempi, keep the rhythms sharp and buoyant, and vividly capture the symphonic sweep and celebratory energy of this glorious music. The various soloists do well, too, even if I prefer Hickox’s sopranos (Susan Gritton and Nancy Argenta) to Gardiner’s (Ruth Ziesak and, in the Harmoniemesse, the rather boyish, white-toned Joanne Lunn). Typically, though, Gardiner’s readings are that much more detailed and sophisticated, with more consciously moulded singing and orchestral playing and bigger, bolder contrasts. In the Kyrie of the Schöpfungsmesse (‘Creation Mass’), for instance, Gardiner deliciously points the waltz accompaniment at ‘Christe eleison’, and really rams home the martial B flat minor eruption near the end. At a more urgent tempo than Hickox, he finds a surprising drama and disquiet in the Benedictus; and in Gardiner’s hands the final ‘Dona nobis pacem’ becomes an aggressive, almost frenetic, demand for peace.

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Gardiner is sensitive to the mellowness and grandeur of the Harmoniemesse, above all in the broad, majestic unfolding of the Kyrie. But, characteristically, he plays up the music’s disruptive, destabilising elements more than Hickox: in the stabbing, discordant sforzandos of the ‘Crucifixus’, or the extra edge of nervous disquiet he brings to Haydn’s astonishingly original setting of the Benedictus. Some may find Gardiner too driven and/or interventionist in these Masses. Hickox’s performances, though amply dramatic, certainly allow of more serenity and uncomplicated optimism; and in some moods I’d prefer him. But forced to make an on-the-spot choice, I’d plump, by a whisker, for the more highly coloured, viscerally exciting readings from Gardiner. Economy may also be a determining factor: Hickox’s performances each come on a single full-priced CD, coupled with minor early Haydn, whereas this new release offers both Masses on two discs for the price of one.

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Richard Wigmore