Michael Gielen conducts Haydn’s Nelson Mass & Drum Roll Symphony

0 of 5 stars

Missa in Angustiis (Nelson Mass)
Symphony No.103 in E flat (Drum Roll)

Eva Lind (soprano), Ingeborg Danz (contralto), James Taylor (tenor) & Reinhard Hagen (bass)


SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Michael Gielen

Recorded 8-11 September 1999 (Mass) & 4 March 2004 in Konzerthaus, Freiburg

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: October 2010
CD No: GLOR GCO 8041
Duration: 66 minutes

The comprehensive booklet note discusses the matter of Haydn’s scoring of the Mass mentioning that it was originally for trumpets, timpani, strings and organ. It is well known that other instruments were subsequently added and the Mass was performed in Haydn’s time using the added wind instruments, but the writer does not commit himself to explaining which version is used here.

Michael Gielen chooses the original scoring and achieves a convincing 18th-century sound using modern forces. The timpanist’s use of hard sticks further enhances the ‘period’ nature of the sound. The war-like trumpet and drum flourishes in the ‘Benedictus’ bring home the anguished feelings of the Austrians at that time as they struggled against Napoleon’s forces. Incidentally I had always imagined that Haydn’s admiration for, and friendship with, Nelson was behind the subtitle of the Mass but I rather like the alternative suggestion that indicates that Haydn was delighted by the news of Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile. Throughout, the balance of orchestra against chorus is excellent, but all four soloists are placed rather far forward. The music strongly features the soprano, but all individual solo lines are clearly defined when her colleagues join her. The organ is not given much presence and I was not particularly aware of any low pedal notes. Overall power and drama are the most striking aspects of the performance.

The recording of the ‘Drum Roll’ Symphony has the same pleasing acoustic quality – helped by the gorgeous resonance of the venue – It dies away so naturally that there is never any clouding of orchestral texture. There is much that is challenging about this performance and interpretative ideas seem to vary from moment to moment.

To start with we have an approach to the drum ‘Intrada’ that is more bizarre than most. Marc Minkowski takes an eccentric view of how this drum introduction to the symphony should be played and also on its return later in the first movement: 36 and 27 seconds respectively. Gielen takes 30 and 20 seconds but is wilder in his crescendos and diminuendos and the Adagio continuation is taken very quickly indeed. I can only reiterate what I said in respect of Minkowski, that “I don’t want to hear it every time I put on a recording”.

The slow pace for Gielen’s reading of the ensuing Allegro con spirito is very effective although I am surprised at the lack of impact in some forte passages even though the balance is acceptable. There is more eccentricity in the next movement which is swift and beautifully phrased but illogical in choice of repeats in each variation – sometimes both, sometimes neither – I like the flowing tempo though. All goes well in the broad Minuet but the start of the Trio fumbles alarmingly, pausing and greatly slowing for a moment but within three bars the original tempo is regained and no such trick is played when the passage is repeated. An interesting solution is found to the opening horn-call of the finale – the first four notes are played broadly and form an introduction. There is no justification in the score but I rather like the effect. Full marks to Gielen for playing the finale complete and not removing the bars toward the end which were cut from some publications after Haydn had returned from his second visit to London.

Gielen gives us varied approaches to Haydn’s music but it is his grand and dramatic approach to the Mass that is very appealing, the eccentricities he brings to the ‘Drum Roll’ are difficult to live with and yet it remains a very interesting performance.

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