OAE/Rattle – 24 June

Haydn
Symphony No.67 in F
Mass in B flat (Harmoniemesse)

Susan Gritton (soprano)
Rinat Shaham (mezzo-soprano)
Jeremy Ovenden (tenor)
David Wilson-Johnson (bass)
European Voices

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Simon Rattle


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 24 June, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The grand finale to the South Bank’s “Haydn: The Creative Genius” series. A near-capacity Royal Festival Hall responded enthusiastically to this pairing of the composer’s final Mass setting (and nearly final music) with one of his many infrequently heard symphonies.

Composed around 1776, No.67 comes from the period when opera dominated Haydn’s thinking – to the extent that theatrical tendencies infuse the symphony from the outset. It was these qualities that Simon Rattle responded to most positively: the opera buffa associations of the opening ’Presto’, with its humorous reversals of sonata-form practice; the quaint archaisms of the ’Adagio’, deceptive in its easy gait and with a delightful col legno reference to its main theme in its closing bars; the Minuet’s intimate Trio for the leaders of the two violin sections, the latter’s G string tuned down to F in a rustic touch almost too well realised here; and the lengthy central cantilena alternating strings and wind which interrupts one of Haydn’s most boisterous finales from this period.

Some infectiously characterful playing, then, though at a cost to overall symphonic cohesion and with an emphasis on chamber-style repartee ill-suited to the further recesses of the Festival Hall. Timbral definition was as firm as one expects from the OAE, though Rattle’s driving tempi in the outer movements places a premium on niceties of phrasing.

As always with Haydn, it is all but impossible to read external circumstances into his creativity. Thus the Harmoniemesse, for all its richness of scoring and symphonic breadth, is hardly a valedictory undertaking by a composer turning 70 and finding the going getting harder by the year (only the unfinished D minor quartet was to come). Surely none of the other ’late’ masses features such finely-judged solo writing – notably the ’Gratias’ and ’Et Incarnatus’ sections (of the Gloria and Credo respectively), affectingly sung here by Susan Gritton and Rinat Shaham, or a Kyrie and Agnus Dei in which supplication and fulfilment are so exquisitely poised.

It was this facet in particular that Rattle brought out so convincingly, aided by vibrant choral singing from European Voices and an orchestral balance that persuasively judged richness of sonority in the more sustained and reflective episodes. Elsewhere, the tendency to drill allegros and vivaces with an all-purpose dynamism became wearing as the piece progressed, for all the virtuosity of the response. The sense of affirmation and completeness that this music radiates would be not be undermined by a degree more circumspection, emphasising the experience within the enlightenment that the music of Haydn’s last creative decade distils more fully than any other – and a quality that our present ’age of anxiety’ can appreciate only through its absence.

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