This is the third time I've reviewed a disc or set with the Mass #11 or "Nelson Mass", and I suppose I should let readers know that I've sung it at Orchestra Hall in Detroit, and have been singing parts of it since 2006. But lest you think that I'm just reviewing the piece for that reason, fear not. This disc is a volume from the late Richard Hickox's eight-disc Haydn mass set, played on period instruments with a 24-voice choir, and is easily one of the finest versions of this great work currently available. Plus, the fillers are interesting and worthwhile.
For one, this rendition of the "Nelson" easily outclasses Bernstein's eagerly sung but somewhat mannered account on Sony. The members of Collegium Musicum 90 sing rings around the scrappy Westminster forces Lenny has. Willcocks on Decca (included in "The Decca Sound") is better, but a touch dated sonically and very British in nature. Finally, we have John Elliot Gardiner's take, currently on Phillips and reviewed in these pages. Tempos are breakneck and the increased excitement comes at a cost; it doesn't really feel like a mass. Hickox slows things down enough to achieve some really excellent choral balances. He's aided by some very fine soloists as well, with Susan Gritton particularly notable.
Sure, Gardiner astonishes with dizzying speeds in the more exciting moments of the piece – we used it to practice when first learning the work and were pretty impressed – but again, there's a certain lack of warmth and indeed humanity that seems to elude Gardiner even in his best work. Hickox has no such problems in that regard, deftly balancing the spiritual and dramatic. If there's a fault, it's that he's just a hair less exciting at the climaxes than his peers. Even Bernstein, for all his flaws, brings a great sense of occasion. Still, this is very, very good.
The Ave Regina is a welcome surprise. Like most Haydn, it's expertly crafted and not very well known. Susan Gritton sings touchingly and with great respect for the text. This is certainly to be chosen over any of the rather faceless efforts by say, Mozart or some other Classical period composer. Hickox does what a conductor has to do here, keep things flowing and support his soloist. Choral contributions are enthusiastic, As for the little Missa brevis, it's a functional piece and worth having to say that you have it. If you don't want it, you don't need it, but it's an unusual supplement to some very great music, and for some, that will be enough. A worthy addition to any Haydn collection.
Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman