One of Michael Haydn's symphonies was taken for Mozart for a long time, and a good deal of their music is linked by its Salzburg roots. The sacred music on this disc, however, either postdates or predates Mozart and sounds very little like him. Included are four short masses for the Lenten season (all but one lacking Glorias, like some other masses of the period) and a charming Graduale for Palm Sunday. All but the concluding Missa Sanctae Crucis were written in the 1790s, after an ecclesiastical reform mandated simple, syllabic settings of liturgical texts, and the Missa Sanctae Crucis is a simple, youthful work. The music is accompanied only by a small continuo group. There are better examples than these pieces of the art of Franz Joseph Haydn's younger brother, but the music here will be intriguing for serious lovers of Viennese Classicism. It just doesn't sound much like anything else in the repertory. In the later pieces he faces the twin challenges of writing music that's not anachronistic -- that moves in the graceful paces of the late eighteenth century rather than the solid harmonic rhythms of the Baroque -- and also of writing music that's simple but not simplistic. Haydn's solutions are unfailingly elegant. Each section of the mass is broken up into several still smaller chunks that take on the quality of individual gestures. Sample the relationship between gradually settling Incarnatus and Crucifixis of the Missa Quadragesimalis, MH 552, and the following triple-meter Resurrexit for a bit of the flavor of the whole. Haydn blazes through large amounts of text, with the entire body of the wordy Creed going by in just over four minutes, and each section seems balanced with the others without obscuring any of the words. The Purcell Choir, Hungarian despite its quintessentially English name, delivers clear, accurate performances that are completely in the sober, straightforward spirit of the music. The masses were worth pulling off the scrap heap of history, for they are ideally suited to student choirs and other organizations with singers of modest abilities. Not an essential purchase for anybody, but a satisfying product of Hungary's growing historical-performance scene.
Michael Haydn: Sacred Music for the Season of Lent Review
by James Manheim