Haydn Nelson Mass and Handel Dettingen Te Deum in Cathedral.

Full Nelson has cathedral in thrall.

“Many of Haydn’s late symphonies and masses tremble with an awareness of Napoleon’s ambitious military campaigning, and his Mass in Time of Anguish is a prime example of this concern, with its foreboding fanfares and hammer-rhythms.

Yet sunny hope mingles with grim fear, giving the piece such unique personality.

Composed in 1798, this Mass in D minor was performed at Eisenstadt for Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton in 1800. Henceforth, and certainly confirmed by the Admiral’s victory at Trafalgar on October 21 1805, it became known as the Nelson Mass. And last weekend, 200 years after that great event, Birmingham heard this tremendous work twice within 24 hours.

Birmingham Choral Union’s account on Saturday was part of the city’s official bicentenary celebrations, with the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, Royal Navy personnel (such polite and attentive cadets) and Civic Society members adding to the significance of the evening.

Conductor Colin Baines has an enthusiastic bunch of choristers under his clear, reassuring baton, and they sang with sturdy fluency. Soprano tone was occasionally unsupported, attack on initial consonants could sometimes have been crisper, and attention to phrasing was not always consistent (as in the “Credo’s” tight canon).

But the overall effect was invigorating, aided by a superlative orchestra, crispness and sonority achieved on only the minimum of rehearsal – a tribute to everyone’s efficiency. Haydn’s important organ scoring was neatly delivered by Darren Hogg.

Equally efficient were the soloists, though soprano Rebecca Bouckley, her intonation sweet and true, was somewhat small-voiced in this context – a cruel comparison when set against Carolyn Sampson, a star of truly universal magnitude, who sang the solos in Ex Cathedra’s taut, dramatic version of the mass on Sunday.

. . . .

BCU’s programme had opened with Handel’s overblown Dettingen Te Deum, composed to mark a great military victory.

Brightly, confidently delivered, it also featured enchanting contributions from mezzo Rebecca Mitchell-Farmer.

And if its half-hour length, Handel doggedly changing gear for each line of text, seemed interminable you could always play ‘spot the Messiah quotes’.”


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