Monday, March 20, 2017

St. Paul's Music brings a distinguished conductor back to the podium for Haydn's "Lord Nelson" Mass

Peril in the wider world often has an impact on artistic creation. When Joseph Haydn composed his Missa in angustiis (a title
variously translated as "Mass in Time of Fear," "Mass in Time of Peril," "Mass Amidst Difficulties," and "Mass in a Time of Anxiety"), Napoleon was on a roll and was about to conquer Egypt.

Joseph Flummerfelt conducted the 'Nelson' Mass.
The work speaks to us to today mainly because its forcefulness is joined to a high level of inspiration from a master musician widely regarded in 1798 as Europe's best composer. After  Lord Nelson commanded a decisive naval victory over Napoleon's forces where the Nile empties into the Mediterranean, the work was performed in his honor when the British war hero in 1800 visited the Esterhazy palace where Haydn had been profitably situated for decades. Nelson's name became attached understandably to a piece whose Latin title has proved resistant to a definitive English translation.

St. Paul's Music at St. Paul's Episcopal Church presented the work under the direction of Joseph Flummerfelt, a  choral conductor renowned chiefly for his many years as artistic director and principal conductor of Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J. Now retired, the Vincennes native and DePauw University alumnus lives in Indianapolis. Flummerfelt's Westminster position and the excellence of his choirs made him a frequent collaborator with many eminent conductors, including Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Masur, and Riccardo Muti.

Sunday afternoon's performance captured the splendor of a work the pre-eminent Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon called "arguably Haydn's greatest single composition." The scoring has no woodwinds in the original, though a flutist, two oboists, and a bassoonist were used at St. Paul's in the "normalized" version often heard, and the organ part scrapped. The result brings trumpets and kettledrums to the fore.

His patron's downsizing of the Esterhazy orchestra is said to be responsible for the unusual absence of horns and woodwinds, and it perhaps encouraged the composer to give a military cast to his setting to reflect the peril, fear, difficulties, and anxieties of his title. The strings could fruitfully have been a little larger, but on the whole the liveliness and contrapuntal richness of the accompaniment came through adequately. The arching violin lines in "Et incarnatus est" were nicely defined.

St. Paul's Choir made a unified impact, and showed its capability to remain balanced across sudden dynamic shifts, such as that between the hushed first part of the Sanctus and the exultant lines beginning "Pleni sunt coeli." The opening "Kyrie" was sufficiently powerful, and the "Gloria" ecstatic. The rhetoric of praise in the two lines beginning "Laudamus te" received soaring commitment from the sopranos. Evidence of thorough preparation by St. Paul's staff directors was consistent; a slightly ragged cutoff in the "Amen" concluding "Quoniam tu solus" was the performance's only rough spot

The temptation to prefer operatic voices in the solo parts is not misplaced, I think. Sacred music in Vienna's Classical era was heavily under the influence of Italian styles, which tended toward a flamboyance unknown in the North German heritage best represented by Bach. Flummerfelt's soloists embodied the operatic style well, except for the most dominant one, soprano Tabitha Burchett. A fuller blossoming quality would have been welcome, something on the order of what we heard from mezzo-soprano Rachel K. Evans, tenor Bille Bruley, and bass Jonathan Bryan.

Before the "Lord Nelson," the choir had a showcase of its own, Mozart's "Ave verum corpus," in which its warmth of expression and fully supported phrasing suited the motet's sublimity. That was preceded by a clergyman's welcome, whose genuine hospitality seemed unnecessarily intensified by his insistence that the concert was being presented as an act of worship in which the audience was a participant. A concert of sacred music will of course communicate something extra to believers, but can best be taken in on its artistic merits by everyone else. A church's musical outreach to the larger community deserves gratitude, but not an implied commitment in return to its institutional mission.