With Mozart and Haydn Masses, Less Is More

The Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Carnegie Hall, October 25, 2018. (Stefan Cohen)
The Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Carnegie Hall was less an ocean liner than a zippy little roadster, able to stop on a dime.

A critic seated behind me at Carnegie Hall remarked as he sat down that the orchestra wasn’t on his A-list — but, he said, it was an exceptional program.

True enough, the October 25 program was exceptional: Haydn’s great “Nelson” Mass, and Mozart’s greater Requiem. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s with La Chapelle de Québec, conducted by Bernard Labadie, outdid all expectations, with a world-class performance that would be the envy of any ensemble.

Mozart and Haydn were friends and correspondents. Although he was more than 20 years older, Haydn also outlived Mozart by 20 years, and each influenced the other. They expressed a frank mutual admiration that extended to Mozart’s dedication of six string quartets to his “father, guide, and friend.” When Mozart took up the study of counterpoint, Haydn leant him his personal copy of Johann Joseph Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum (a textbook, incidentally, that remains in use today, continuing a fairly successful 293-year run).

Haydn spoke graciously of Mozart and more than once called him the superior composer. He was right about that, but it was nice of Haydn to say so. His “Nelson” Mass was not written with Admiral Lord Nelson in mind — so far as we know. It was once thought to celebrate Nelson’s victory over Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile. It now appears the name was applied ex post facto, possibly as a result of Nelson’s visit to Esterházy in 1800, where he met Haydn and heard the Mass performed. At any rate, this third and best of the six Masses that Haydn wrote after traveling to London contains enough martial vigor in trumpets and timpani to make the title perfectly appropriate. And Mozart’s influence is audible: The beginning of the Sanctus is one of the most beautiful and thoughtful passages Haydn ever wrote. But in fairness: It owes something to the processional that opens the second act of Mozart’s last opera, The Magic Flute.

Mozart’s Requiem was the result of a secret commission by Count Franz von Walsegg — secret because it was the count’s practice to pay better composers to write music that he could pretend he’d written himself. Unfortunately for Walsegg, there is no mistaking Mozart. At least to an extent: Mozart famously, and inconsiderately, died before he had a chance to finish the commission. He got no further than the first eight bars of the Lacrimosa. The rest of the Mass was finished by the combined efforts of several of his students, and is inferior. To complete the final section of the Mass, and without even any partial sketches to go on, the students resorted simply to repeating Mozart’s introduction, note for note.

Attempts at completing unfinished masterpieces are almost invariably disappointing — like the Bandini Pietà:  a young sculptor hired to repair the work, which Michelangelo had smashed in frustration, decided to improve one of the figures and left her about 25 percent smaller than everyone else in the sculpture. It may be better to leave off exactly where the artist did — as with Glenn Gould’s recording of the last contrapunctus in Bach’s Art of the Fugue: The sudden break from everything to nothing, when we are still so high up, so far away from a safe landing, sets our brains buzzing. It leaves us disappointed with what we didn’t hear, rather than with what we did. On the whole, this is more satisfactory.

But, perhaps because Mozart’s Requiem so gradually runs from completely finished segments to sketches to nothing, it is never performed without added material. So it’s up to a good conductor to make the best of it, and Labadie delivered.

The Orchestra of St. Luke’s was founded in New York in 1974 and has a commendable focus on classical and baroque repertoire, which audiences love. This repertoire may not be as technically challenging as contemporary works, but it has its own challenges — mostly musical rather than technical — which many performers underestimate.

A modern symphony orchestra typically has a hundred musicians. An eccentric romantic like Mahler might have demanded 20 or 40 more. (No one had the heart to tell him that four harps was rather sadistic.) But 18th-century orchestras almost never had more than 50 musicians, and usually far fewer. They were spare, essential. So, when a modern orchestra encounters an 18th-century piece, the effect can be awesome, but it is quite unlike what the composer himself would have heard.

There are tradeoffs in performing Mozart and Haydn as St. Luke’s did, with a period-sized orchestra: The brass in particular was timid and apparently wanted reinforcement. But the benefits to crispness, clarity and liveliness are worth it.

The bigger an orchestra gets, the harder it becomes to start and stop on a dime. And yet Mozart and Haydn insist on this agility: Music following the baroque retained a linear, contrapuntal flavor that romanticism would later wash away. In texture it was more like a zippy little roadster, less like an ocean liner. Getting a silence to start and stop in precisely the right place is vital. But many modern-sized orchestras barely bother trying: It is typical to hear them treat the rest (pause) that follows a note of equal length as an acceptable-overrun area, in much the same way as Italian motorists treat sidewalks.

There is a difference between playing the notes and playing music. The depth of Mozart’s Requiem is beyond anything else he wrote. It must be approached with due deference. Labadie took the music seriously, and we were rewarded with shimmering musicality. Many larger orchestras could learn something from him.

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