Aberdeen Bach Choir: The Esterhazy Court

St Machar's Cathedral Sunday 25 April 2010

For their Spring Concert this year, the Aberdeen Bach Choir and their conductor Gordon Jack chose music by three composers representing the classical era. All three pieces were commissioned by the Esterházy Family. Haydn was for thirty years in the service of the family, wearing a servant’s livery for much of that time, while Hummel was in service there for just seven years. Beethoven was never a servant of that family or of any other but he was commissioned to write his Mass in C by Prince Nicolaus II Esterházy in 1807. Taken together, the three works performed on Sunday by the Bach Choir provided a marvellous snapshot of the musical life in the Esterházy Court in the opening years of the nineteenth century. All three works were first performed within a few years of one another in the opening decade of that century; Haydn’s Harmoniemesse in 1802, Hummel’s Te Deum in 1806 and Beethoven’s Mass in C in 1807. Both Haydn’s Mass and Hummel’s Te Deum seem to have been well received by Prince Nicolaus but he is reported to have written to a friend calling Beethoven’s Mass “unbearably ridiculous and detestable”. Sunday’s performance by the Bach Choir provided our twenty-first century Aberdeen audience with a unique opportunity to judge for ourselves.

The Bach Choir and the City of Glasgow Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gordon Jack with four superb vocal soloists, soprano Julie Kennard, mezzo-soprano Vanessa Williamson, tenor Andrew Murgatroyd and bass Michael Pearce gave performances of the Haydn and Beethoven Masses that did more than ample justice to the two composers allowing a satisfactory comparison to be made. The choral singing was remarkably well balanced with the smaller numbers of male voices, in particular tenors, making no difference at all to the overall impact of their singing. Well done, gentlemen! The Latin text of the Hummel Te Deum is more challenging to get across and perhaps needed more emphasis on the words but there was no problem at all in the two masses. The choral singing in the Haydn Harmoniemesse reflected the brightness and optimism of the composer’s approach while the sense of drama in Beethoven’s Mass was very effectively captured by the choir, and once again especially by the men. Particularly lively playing by the strings drove the Harmoniemesse. Along with trumpet and timpani, it was the strings that were the real powerhouse in the Hummel Te Deum. It was really in the Beethoven Mass that the woodwind players and the horn really began to shine especially in the Agnus Dei and of course trumpet and timpani have a much more forward role in Beethoven’s Mass.

It was fascinating to compare both the similarities and the contrasts in the way Haydn and Beethoven employ their soloists in the two Masses. Haydn provides attractive solos, two splendid duets for tenor and bass and a fine trio in his Mass. Beethoven gives the tenor an extended solo and the bass has a wonderfully dramatic moment in the Et resurrexit but otherwise he tends to use the singers as a quartet. Both works however benefited from the perfectly balanced ensemble singing of our four soloists. They were an absolute delight to listen to. It was interesting that both Haydn and Beethoven use the solo voice quartet to give a special lift to the end of each section of the Mass although I felt that here, Haydn was just ahead.

Possibly the most interesting comparison between the two Masses was in the composers’ treatment of the Benedictus and the Agnus Dei. Haydn’s Benedictus is quite unlike that of most other composers. It was positively jolly with a wonderful piece of florid writing for the soprano splendidly sung by Julie Kennard. It was the following Agnus Dei with its splendid writing for vocal quartet, pizzicato lower strings and woodwind that was more like what most composers tend to do with the Benedictus. In one sense Beethoven’s Benedictus is more what one would expect but it is far more extended almost becoming the centrepiece of the entire work. Lovely vocal quartet work set against colourful woodwind and strings and a gentle chanting chorus made this very different from Haydn but to my mind every bit as attractive if not more so. Beethoven’s Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem with clarinet, horn, timpani and choir all contributing to a splendid finale certainly convinced me that Prince Nicolaus must have had cloth ears. Apparently he complained that Beethoven’s Mass was not symphonic enough. Actually, if you listen to Beethoven’s orchestral writing, I think it is more symphonic, not less. However, I refuse to choose a winner between Haydn and Beethoven. I thought they were both marvellous. Thank-you Gordon Jack and the Bach Choir for a splendid evening!

Review contributed by Alan Cooper