The King's Consort, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Tuesday 18 May 2004
Compared with his celebrated older brother Joseph, Michael Haydn (1737-1806) seems to have been a relatively phlegmatic character, content to serve successive prince-archbishops of Salzburg for decades, during which he kept up friendly relations with the Mozart family, and numbered Weber and Diabelli among his pupils.
Compared with his celebrated older brother Joseph, Michael Haydn (1737-1806) seems to have been a relatively phlegmatic character, content to serve successive prince-archbishops of Salzburg for decades, during which he kept up friendly relations with the Mozart family, and numbered Weber and Diabelli among his pupils. But if his symphonies remain fairly sleepy affairs, his church music was another matter, surviving in use for decades and much admired by Schubert. Indeed, scholars have suggested that his Requiem in C Minor (1771) was to some extent the model for Mozart's own great terminal opus of 20 years later.
No doubt testing the point by putting the two works into the same programme would be excessively morbid. Instead, Robert King chose to emphasise the range of Michael Haydn's church music in this fine Queen Elizabeth Hall programme with The King's Consort and its Choir, by prefacing the Requiem in C Minor with the festive later Mass in honour of St Ursula (1793). In between, we heard the 15-year-old Mozart's setting of Regina coeli K108: a typically Italianate sequence, with jolly choruses enclosing two florid arias - though soprano Carolyn Sampson's searching projection of the minor-key second of these disclosed hints of the more grown-up Mozart to come.
Composed for a Benedictine monastery, the Haydn Mass reflected surprisingly little of Mozart's Salzburg style; sounding, rather, like a confident blueprint for the six great symphonic masses with which his famous brother was shortly to crown his career. Cheerfulness abounds - indeed, the performers could hardly get through the swinging triple-time "Gloria" without bursting into smiles - and not till the "Et incarnatus" sequence of the "Credo" did one encounter a darker vein. Yet subtleties were also to be found, in the recurrent use of muted strings, a penchant for the steely glint of pianissimo trumpets and a quite unexpected fade-away ending.
After this, the Requiem in C minor could not have come as starker a contrast. Composed for the funeral of Michael Haydn's employer, Archbishop Sigismund, it may also represent Haydn's grief at the loss, in infancy, of his only child. From the darkly pacing opening, dominated by the sombre sounds of four trumpets, this is patently a piece driven by dire necessity.
The lengthy "Dies Irae" sequence that most composers break into contrasting sections, is here carried through in a single urgent allegro. Harmony is often chromatic, fugal, terse: even more traditionally bright sections such as the "Sanctus" are constantly twisting into the minor. With Sampson joined by the sonorous contralto Hilary Summers, the lyrical tenor James Gilchrist and the agile bass Peter Harvey, and the choir responding intently to King's direction, it was obvious why this had to be the music chosen in 1809 for the funeral of Joseph Haydn himself.
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