London Philharmonic/Yannick Nézet-Séguin – Haydn’s Nelson Mass & Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben

Missa in angustiis (Nelson Mass), Hob.XXII/11
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40

Sarah-Jane Brandon (soprano), Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Robin Tritschler (tenor) & Luca Pisaroni (bass-baritone)

London Philharmonic Choir

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 24 November, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Yannick Nézet-Séguin. ©Pierre DuryOn a cold, wet evening, mere yards from the countless forlorn revellers roaming London’s South Bank in search of a party, Richard Strauss and Joseph Haydn were the life and soul of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Saturday night. Not together, of course: the life, a ‘heroic’ one, was (broadly) Strauss’s own, while the soul was nourished courtesy of ‘Papa’ Haydn’s military-flavoured Mass.

Haydn had a political reason for styling the ‘Nelson’ Mass in angustiis (in straitened times), but it had nothing to do with double-dip recessions. Rather, he was seeking to explain, and maybe complain, that the work’s limited orchestration had been forced upon him by the dismissal for financial reasons of his orchestra’s wind players. Not that the generous musical forces fielded by the LPO for this performance suggested any sympathetic belt-tightening. This was big-boned Haydn, with more strings than Yannick Nézet-Séguin could shake a stick at and a Mahler-sized London Philharmonic Choir to match them.

Unfortunately, while the choral and orchestral forces came in battalions, the quartet of soloists had no choice but to be single spies – which meant the balance of impact was never in their favour. Why, then, were they placed at the rear of the platform, below the choir and behind the orchestra? For all their distinction (and the names speak for themselves) they struggled to achieve sufficient volume and Sarah-Jane Brandon, who carried the lion’s share of solo duties, seemed at one point in the ‘Kyrie’ to be fighting for the puff required to project the music’s flowing line.

The ‘Nelson’ Mass is an epic on many levels, and for all its classical structure it can sound monolithic in hands less eloquent than those of the youthful French-Canadian conductor. Nézet-Séguin rose to the architectural challenges of the sprawling ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’, supporting the excellent Luca Pisaroni (a late substitute for Hanno Müller-Brachmann) through the long lines of “Qui tollis” and riding the crest of “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” with its foretaste of Beethoven’s choral excitement. Haydn provided little for either Sarah Connolly or Robin Tritschler to get their teeth into, but both sang with great style. It was, though, the Choir and Orchestra who carried the day with a display of flawless, utterly thrilling articulation and accuracy. The ranks of LPO strings played Haydn’s intricately-notated accompaniment to the ‘Agnus’ dei with the freedom and precision of a quartet.

More proof of the London Philharmonic’s current eminence came with its magnificent response to Nézet-Séguin’s glorious interpretation of Ein Heldenleben. From the outset the conductor’s balletic swagger demanded equal measures of freedom and discipline, yet the LPO’s sound never veered from the organic and true, sustaining ideal balances. The devoted relationship between the Hero and his wife was portrayed with such tender humanity by the lower strings and the solo violin of Pieter Schoeman that we might as well have been intruding on a real-life couple’s most intimate moments, popping our heads above the bedsheets during Strauss’s depiction of conjugal passion to gawp like the score’s prattling, mood-breaking ‘critics’. What, though, are we to make of the following section dealing with the Hero’s ‘battle’? Is it fanciful to think of it as a metaphor for some rather more animated bedroom action, complete with an exalted (and convincingly located) ‘yippee-ki-yay’ moment? That may be just an impression left by Nézet-Séguin’s no-holds-barred conducting, but so what; in his ardent reading Strauss’s Hero was clearly a man who lived life to the full.

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