Following the completion of his last symphony in London, Haydn returned to Vienna and rounded off his career with six inspired mass settings, which were commissioned by the Esterházy family. The third of the series, commonly known as the Nelson Mass, was composed in 1798 and was catalogued by Haydn as ‘Missa in angustiis’ or ‘Mass in troubled times’, a reflection of the turbulent era in which it was written.
Owing to the financial instability of the period, Haydn did not include woodwinds and horns in his original score, the players having been dismissed from the Esterházy payroll, although this performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra used a version of the mass with wind parts added. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin was fully attuned to the music’s sensibilities, contrasting the anguish of the D minor opening Kyrie with the joyousness of the following Gloria, finding an impressive sense of mystery at the start of the Sanctus and bringing real power to the martial rhythms of the Benedictus.
Sarah-Jane Brandon negotiated the florid soprano writing with great skill, while Luca Pisaroni gave an impressive reading of the bass-baritone part, despite being a last minute substitute for the indisposed Hanno-Müller Brachmann. There were also fine performances from mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and tenor Robin Tritschler. The 80 strong forces of the London Philharmonic Choir sung with both precision and fervour, and Nézet-Séguin’s swift pace for the celebratory Agnus Dei brought the mass to a rousing conclusion.
The second half of the concert featured a similarly compelling performance of Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, a work written exactly 100 years after Haydn’s mass. Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation was distinguished by confidence, warmth and understanding. ‘The Hero’s companion’, featuring a superb performance of the violin solo by the orchestra leader Pieter Schoeman, brought ecstatic playing from the orchestra, while ‘The Hero’s works of peace’, with its web of quotations from Strauss’s earlier works, was sublime. Nézet-Séguin also highlighted the darkness and unease inherent in ‘The Hero’s Adversaries’. Most impressive of all, however, was ‘The Hero’s deeds of war’, a movement that can sometimes sound bombastic and intrusive, but which was here thrilling in its panache and impact.
Given the quality of the music on offer, it was a pity that the hall was half-empty for this impressive concert. Afterwards, Nézet-Séguin participated in a public discussion in the Clore Ballroom. Topics included his rapport with the LPO, his thoughts about the music played in the concert, and his work with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk