Too Much Tchaikovsky

Rarities and Remembrances

This TMT will appear in Copper #100 on December 16, 2019. Happy Anniversary to Copper and to all the fine people who make it happen! What you’re reading is not my 100th column for Copper; I started writing something called (I think) “Classical Corner” well before Copper got underway. Plus, I took a sabbatical or two, so maybe you’re reading TMT #127. In any case: Paul, thanks! Trying to come up with something worth reading every two weeks has kept me more alive.

December 16 is also Beethoven’s birthday. (For half a century, Schroeder regularly reminded us of that.) This year it marks Beethoven’s 249th birthday, so next year marks his 250th. Anniversaries like this are a big deal in classical music, so here goes: I will feature at least one Beethoven work, plus a recommendable recent recording, in every 2020 Copper. I’ll balance my choices between well-known and lesser-known. Today (just to jump the gun), it’s Beethoven chamber music for winds. The two-plus pieces discussed below are relative rarities, if such a thing is possible in Beethovenland.

Also today, a remembrance and another anniversary: Sir Stephen Cleobury passed away on November 22; for many years he directed the Choir of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge University. The Choir has released The Centenary Service: A Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols, a live recording of its 100th-anniversary Christmas Eve observance from December 24, 2018. It was not intended as a memorial to Sir Stephen, but many longtime followers of the Choir will undoubtedly be drawn to it for that reason. (King’s College has since released a download-only tribute.)

Finally, we feature one more rarity: a new recording of a lesser-known and infrequently recorded Haydn orchestral Mass, the Missa Cellensis in hon. B.V.M. Although it’s young Haydn, it makes a joyful and elaborate noise, perfect for the holiday season. Conductor Justin Doyle, the RIAS Kammerchor, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, and a host of talented young solo singers make this a first-rate musical experience.

Beethoven: Music for Winds. Shifrin, Purvis, Morelli, et al. (Naxos) Most of what’s on this album was written for pairs of clarinets, bassoons, and horns. The Octet op. 103 adds oboes. It’s all young Beethoven, composed between 1792 and 1798. Awkward moment: he may have told his new teacher in Vienna, Joseph Haydn, that he had revised his 1792-3 Octet as a result of Haydn’s instruction, but when Haydn sent a score—along with a plea for more funding—to Beethoven’s Bonn patron, the Archbishop-Elector, the Elector dismissed his request out of hand, telling him that Beethoven had, after all, written the work before leaving Bonn!

No matter—it’s delightful music, skillfully and sensitively played by a group of distinguished faculty at the Yale School of Music along with their talented former students. Historically, small wind groups like this were kept on hand in patrician households; the musicians could summon up pleasant sounds at dinner parties and afterwards on the lawn, as guests strolled about and occasionally cocked an ear. Let’s hear a bit of the Octet’s opening Allegro:

The Adagio from the Sextet op. 71 features especially lovely bassoon playing from Frank Morelli:

The Centenary Service: A Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols. Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; Sir Stephen Cleobury, cond. (King’s College; SACD & download) Special care was taken in selecting carols and anthems for this event. Obviously not everyone’s favorite could be included, but among those that made the cut were “Adam lay ybounden” (Boris Ord), “I Saw Three Ships” (arr. Simon Preston), “Unto us is born a Son” (arr. David Willcocks), “A Spotless Rose” (Herbert Howells), “The Lamb” (John Tavener), “What Sweeter Music” (John Rutter), “In the bleak mid-winter” (Harold Darke) and 2018’s commissioned work, “O mercy divine” (Judith Weir).

Weir’s new carol is a revelation: the cello obbligato adds a pensive, searching quality to this setting, while the choristers give out with simpler music that fully expresses the childlike joy of miracles recounted in Charles Wesley’s text.

Judith Weir is now one of a handful of composers who’ve gotten King’s College Christmas Commisions more than once. Others include John Rutter and Richard Rodney Bennett but not John Tavener, who composed “The Lamb” in 1982, a year before Sir Stephen initiated the commissions. Nevertheless the Choir featured it on Christmas Eve that year, and it has since become a favorite.

The music Weir provided in 1985 for her first commision, “Illuminare, Jerusalem,” was quite modernistic, although not at all “atonal,” as online yobs would have had it. Although performed quite well by the Choir, it may have struck some people as insufficiently consonant for Christmas Eve. With “O mercy divine,” Weir demonstrated that she was more than capable of writing lively, tonal music of an emotional complexity suitable for grownups of all ages at any time of year.

Let’s finish by hearing Sir Stephen’s own arrangement of “Joys Seven,” also part of the Centenary Service. This video is from 2009’s separately recorded BBC telecast (not an excerpt from the Christmas Eve service, which is never telecast.)

 

Joseph Haydn: Missa Cellensis in honorem Beatissimae Virginis Mariæ. RIAS Kammerchor et al., Justin Doyle, cond. (Harmonia Mundi; CD & download) Years ago, I wrote a book about Haydn’s choral music; it was fun going back to see what I had said about the Missa Cellensis. Well, not totally fun: I found myself skipping the source analysis and speculations about why and when Haydn wrote this Mass. Briefly: after he was made chief Kapellmeister for Prince Nicolaus Eszterházy, Haydn celebrated by writing an ambitious thank-offering, a full-blown “number” Mass—or at least a Kyrie-Gloria-Credo cycle in that style. (They’re called “number” Masses because the wordier Gloria and Credo texts are broken down into separate, contrasting movements featuring various styles and soloists; a well-known example is Bach’s Mass in B Minor, the Gloria of which comprises nine movements, numbered 4 through 12 in modern editions.)

Haydn apparently titled his work Missa Cellensis to honor the venerable pilgrimage church at Mariazell, a site long associated with the Eszterházy family. There’s no record of it ever having been performed there, but it could have found performances at several Viennese churches. Haydn may have waited until 1770 or so to complete and/or revise the Mass; the work’s latter movements—Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Dona—are written in a markedly different style than the earlier ones.

The Gloria begins in typical fashion, all hands on deck, lively tempo, trumpets, drums, confetti. Even within this conventionally festive context, Haydn shows plenty of skill, varying choral textures, downshifting nicely into “Et in terra pax,” and so forth. It’s a proper setting for the Song of the Angels.

There’s much more to come. (After all, this is a “numbers” Mass.) Note the graceful, measured, altogether aristocratic tone of the “Laudamus”:

The orchestral accompaniment maintains an attractively starchy, upright character that complements the soprano’s slightly freer delivery. Three movements later, the choral “Qui tollis” strikes a more somber note:

It may be somber, but it’s no less energetic, which is true everywhere in this beautifully paced performance. The “Et incarnatus est,” a dramatic recitativo accompagnato and arietta, manages a similar balance:

We’ll skip the obligatory fugues that end both “Gloria” and “Credo,” so I can offer at least one taste of the post-1770 music. Here’s the opening of the “Benedictus”:

And here’s what I said about it back in the day:

What the listener will hear immediately . . . is the uneasiness in this music. It careens between minor and major, encountering diminished chord outbursts and martial rhythms en route to its ultimately tragic ending. Blessed, but cruel also, is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: here is a feeling akin to those in the great minor-key Benedictus movements of the late Masses, especially the Nelsonmesse.

It makes a great Christmas gift, folks, and not just for the Scrooges on your list. (By the way, how does one wrap a download?)