Michael Haydn

0 of 5 stars

Michael Haydn
Requiem pro defuncto Archiepiscopo Sigismundo
Missa in honorem Sanctae Ursulae

Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Hilary Summers (alto)
James Gilchrist (tenor)
Peter Harvey (bass)

Choir of the King’s Consort

The King’s Consort
Robert King

Recorded between 7-9 May 2004 in St-Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: December 2005
CDA67510 (2 CDs)
Duration: 84 minutes

One could ask for no more atmospheric beginning than that of Michael Haydn’s Requiem; the stately opening lifts a curtain on the funeral rites, the syncopation suggests a missed heartbeat. This is music that bridges this world and the next, explores the infinite mysteries of life and mortality – it both terrifies and consoles.

If a composer with greater posthumous fame had written this “Requiem”, it would surely now enjoy the same esteem as those by Verdi, Mozart and Fauré. There are a myriad felicitous moments, such as the insistent string figuration in the ‘Benedictus’, like a repetitively chanted affirmation of faith. But Michael Haydn (1737-1806) is the forgotten Haydn, the younger brother of Europe’s then most celebrated composer, Joseph Haydn. Whether from bad luck, contentment with his life in Salzburg, reluctance to have his work published or psychological difficulties, Michael’s works are barely performed or even known today.

Under Robert King’s direction, these are, predictably, very fine interpretations. Choral and orchestral discipline is tight; the power and depth of the music, of the “Requiem” in particular, are conveyed with great conviction and immediacy. The quartet of soloists is strong – listen to how seamlessly they blend in the ‘Benedictus’ of the Requiem, to which Carolyn Sampson’s creamy tones are well suited as they also are to the more tranquil “St Ursula Mass” – notably in the floated opening ‘Kyrie’ and the solo ‘Benedictus’.

Hitherto, the Requiem by Michael Haydn, written in 1771, has been best known as a source of ideas for Mozart’s unfinished work (K626). The parallels are numerous: similar melodies, scoring, and general approach; these are well documented in Robert King’s booklet note. Is the listener conditioned by the dramatic architecture of Mozart’s own “Requiem” to be attracted to so similar a work, one that is, moreover, fully completed in Haydn’s own hand and does not suffer from the uneven scoring of Mozart‘s? Conversely, the “St Ursula Mass” bears repeated listening; it grows on the listener – is it simply our ignorance of it that gives it a lesser place to Joseph Haydn’s “Nelson Mass” or Beethoven’s “Mass in C”?

The younger Haydn resented Joseph’s success, claiming that had he enjoyed the same patronage, he would have been “not far behind him”. Michael became Court Composer and Concertmaster in Salzburg in 1762 and remained there for the rest of his days. Unsurprisingly, choral music takes pride of place within his varied output. We know he had cordial relations with Mozart.

Michael Haydn’s “Requiem” was written in response to the death of Haydn’s employer and patron, Archbishop Sigismund, and was completed in the last two weeks of 1771 and probably also expresses Haydn’s grief at the death of his daughter. The work was also performed at Joseph Haydn’s funeral (he survived his younger brother Michael by a few years), and he had always rated Michael’s choral writing above his own.

Coupled with the Requiem is the far more sanguine, and reflective, “St Ursula Mass”, one of comparable musical flair, which was completed in 1793; stylistically it seems similar to the “Requiem”, although there are numerous carefully crafted dramatic moments, not least the sudden hushed ending to the whole work. The ‘Agnus Dei’ has an especially winning melody.

It is ironic that Michael Haydn’s proximity to his brother has dogged him, even posthumously. We have lived through a generation of recording that has discovered and rediscovered second-line composers, some of whom seem primarily of musicological rather than musical interest. Michael Haydn’s “Requiem” and “Mass” have been carefully chosen (using Robert King’s own performing editions) – and if Michael Haydn’s choral writing is consistently of this quality, it is a great shame that his output as a whole remains almost completely unknown. These two CDs sell for the price of one.

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