HAYDN: 13 Masses (Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14)
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields; Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge/George Guest, cond. (Nos. 7-10, 12-14). London Symphony Orchestra; Choir of King's College, Cambridge/David Willcocks, cond. (No. 11). The Academy of Ancient Music; Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford/Simon Preston, cond. (Nos. 1, 3-6). Various British solo singers.
London 448 518 (7 CDs) (ADD/DDD) (M) TT: 75:30 60:07 - 77:41- 72:00 - 60:18 - 76:30 - 40:17- 60:07- 77:41 72:00 - 60:18 - 76:30 - 40:17  

Hoboken Volume XXII of Franz Joseph Haydn's massive musical oeuvre contains his 14 Mass settings, the last six of which are singular glories in the post-Baroque period after J. S. Bach's death. Mozart in his maturity matched parts of them despite a significantly smaller output of church music, but Haydn's 9-14 are breathtaking in their range of expression—everywhere more assured in purpose than, say, Beethoven's misshapen, sometimes misfiring, albeit awesome Missa Solemnis.

Haydn composed the last six in Vienna between 1796 and 1802, after his second return from London -- Solemn Masses, all of them, for solo quartet, four-part chorus, and orchestra. Going as far back as No. 3 of 1749-50 ("Rorate coeli desuper"), each has an alternative title.

The sublimely terminal six, which London/Decca recorded in the '60s, in analog sound of chapel-resounding beauty, are Missa in tempore belli (No. 9, a.k.a. Paukenmesse), Heiligenmesse (No. 10, or Missa Sancti Bernardi de Offida), Missa in angustiis (or Lord Nelson Mass, No. 11), Theresienmesse (No. 12), Schöpfungsmesse (or "Creation" Mass, No. 13), and finally Harmonienmesse (No. 14, so-called for its prominent wind writing).

The Missa Cellensis (or "Mariazeller" Mass), No. 8 from 1782, is a work of obvious maturity from the "Paris" symphonies period -- but five years later than No. 7 (Missa brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo, otherwise familiar as "Little Organ Mass"). No. 6 (Missa Sancti Nicolai) was written at Esterháza in 1772, along with the "Farewell" Symphony -- six years after No. 5 (Missa in honorem Beatissimae Virginis Mariae), which celebrated his promotion to chief Kapellmeister by the princely Esterházy family that he served from 1761 until 1802.

The only early Mass that sounds rote-made is No. 1, a Missa brevis in F dating from 1749, which Haydn reorchestrated in 1805 with all the resources of that later period. Alas, it is the original version that London/Decca recorded, following the Digital revisionism of 1983 and the "ancient" instrument epidemic that has stayed with us like gonorrhea.

Simon Preston's five Oxford recordings, chirpy-bright in sound and texture, feature Christopher Hogwood as organist -- a far, far better thing he did than his subsequent transformation as conductor-conferencier. Mass No. 1 needs only two soprano soloists—Judith Nelson and boy-voiced Emma Kirkby. No. 3 needs none. No. 4, however, and those after employ a solo quartet—except for No. 7, written for only one soprano.

Going back to the classic performances led by David Willcocks and George Guest, their solo rosters included plenty of familiar names, fondly remembered by those of us exasperated by most things "ancient" and sexless-sounding. Consider this list of stalwarts: Sopranos April Cantelo, Erna Spoorenberg, Sylvia Stahlmann, and Jennifer Smith; contraltos Helen Watts, Bernadette Greevy, and Shirley Minty; tenors Alexander Young, Ian Partridge, John Mitchinson, and Robert Tear; baritones and basses Tom Krause, Benjamin Luxon, Joseph Rouleau, et alii.

Before Leonard Bernstein left New York for the Schlag, Schlamperei and caryatids of Vienna (with stopovers in London, Paris and Amsterdam, but never as congenially) he recorded four of the six post-London masses. Without, however, the panache that informed his "Paris" symphonies (Nos. 82-87), and none with a well-matched solo quartet. Maybe Masses were alien to his nature; certainly he never produced a great recording of any, except his own Broadway-fertilized, secular Mass for the Kennedy Center's inauguration. Sony has repackaged them with cover art by Prince Charles, but neither the contents nor the cost comes within halloo-ing distance of these London restorations.

The Cambridge-based performances were instant classics, and their sonic character has not been adultered by digitization. You won't find anything comparable at their special box-price. I'd say "Wunderbar," except that "Jolly good show!" seems more appropriate, given the geographic source of this treasure.

R.D. (Sept. 1999)