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Haydn’s late Masses are among the crowning glories of his illustrious career: symphonic in scope and form, imaginatively scored, and varied in instrumentation. It now seems extraordinary that Haydn lavished on them such care for them to be heard in the chapel at Esterházy, often in a liturgical context. They have long been popular with choral societies up and down the land, for the Masses are modest in their technical difficulty yet challenging enough in their stylistic requirements to be rewarding to singers. This set of four discs gathers together all the late Masses, together with one of the earlier shorter Masses (in F major). Hänssler Classics have drawn on their back catalogue for the set – the recordings date from between 1992 and 2008 – with the lion’s share going to the veteran master choral conductor Helmut Rilling, whose forces range geographically between Stuttgart and the Oregon Bach Festival, both of which he has been associated with for many years.

As might be expected, Rilling’s interpretative values represent a solidly middle-of-the-road view of Haydn. He may not use period instruments, but the choirs don’t sound generous in size, and instrumental and vocal phrasing is always stylish. Indeed, what is striking throughout is the clarity of the choral and orchestral textures that Rilling draws from his performers, whether in Germany or the United States. Tempi are consistently well judged, never extreme nor exaggerated. Rilling’s soloists, while not front-rank international artists, are all more than suited to the purpose in hand: indeed, soprano Letizia Scherrer gives an exceptionally fine account of the taxing coloratura in the ‘Nelson’ Mass.

Two other groups and conductors contribute to the set: Gerd Guglhör and his Munich forces for the Missa Cellensis, and Owen Burdick and the Choir of Trinity Church Wall Street and the REBEL Baroque Orchestra for the F major Missa brevis. While neither conductor has quite the command of Rilling – how could they, given Rilling’s long engagement with this music? – both make decent contributions to the venture, with Guglhör especially eloquent in the C major Missa brevis. The recorded sound is as uncluttered as the readings of the music. While Hickox or Gardiner might play up the inherent drama of this music more than Rilling and his cohorts do, anyone looking for recordings of these Masses should be well satisfied with this set.

PHILIP REED Read the full review on Agora Classica


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