Martin Pearlman / Boston Baroque

Haydn: Lord Nelson Mass

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The recordings of the Boston Baroque have been rightly praised for their precise work on historical instruments, and for a clean, bright approach free from mannerism. Conductor Martin Pearlman generally finds engaging young American vocal soloists, and that's a major virtue of this recording of the Missa in Angustiis in D minor, the so-called Lord Nelson Mass. Programming is a strong point; the performances on this album were being rehearsed as bombs exploded near the Boston Marathon finish line, and the mass and the Symphony No. 102 in B flat major indeed are persuasive as music "in time of anguish," as the title of the mass promises. That work features the trumpets and drums of war as part of its very texture, with wide-open musical spaces at high volume that are unlike anything else Haydn ever wrote (the mass, due to budget cuts imposed by Haydn's employer, includes no wind parts except for trumpets). And that's where this performance runs into trouble. It's not clear exactly how many musicians were involved in the premiere of the Lord Nelson Mass, but it was composed just after The Creation, whose premiere involved 180, and it is a work of vast dimensions. Perhaps a performance at Esterháza castle would have involved fewer than that, but it's hard to imagine that the 30 instrumentalists and 20 singers here would have done the trick. Even the Symphony No. 102 in B flat major is underpowered here; the orchestra at the London concerts organized by the entrepreneur Johann Peter Salomon, where the work was premiered, featured 41 musicians. It is in the mass that the lack of muscle is most serious. The mighty opening of the Kyrie is reduced to trumpets and drums, miked closely, with a faint echo of strings in the background, and even the chorus can't really stand up to the brass when it enters. The soloists, especially bass Kevin Deas, do generally fine work, although one might argue that the soprano part here, which like Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 is meant to push the singer to the edge, again does not live up to the dimensions implicit in the work. The Symphony No. 102 is more successful, but the listener in search of historical performances of that work has plenty of other places to go. Fans of Boston Baroque will find its virtues on display in this recording, but it may appeal less to impartial listeners.

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