Haydn: Little Organ Mass
Excerpts from The Creation and The Seasons
Pieces for Clockwork Organ
The Kapiti Chorale, Marie Brown (conductor), Peter Averi (organ), Janey MacKenzie (soprano), John Beaglehole (tenor), Roger Wilson (bass)
St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Paraparaumu
Saturday, 7 May 2011, 2.30pm
While Haydn is an extremely important composer (1732-1809) and wrote in a great variety of genres, an entire concert of his music, not being one of his oratorios or major masses, may appear a little too much of one man’s music in a single performance.
However, the insertion of the delightful Six little pieces for flute clock lessened the effect of sameness.
The Kapiti Chorale must be the best choir around, certainly of its size, for watching their conductor. The opening of the Little Organ Mass was exemplary from this point of view. Most of the singers appeared to have memorised the opening. However, the singers started a little flat in intonation, and this unfortunate characteristic recurred rather too often through the performance. Not seriously flat, but flat nonetheless, especially the soprano section. The church has a lively acoustic, which makes it difficult to hide any inaccuracies.
The indomitable Peter Averi, this year celebrating 65 years since he first began playing the organ for church services, accompanied throughout, as well as playing a solo work. However, even he could not make a digital organ sound like a pipe organ plus string quartet, the combination for which this Mass was written, either in volume or tone. The bass of this instrument seemed particularly dull.
However, there was good sound from the choir, especially from the women. It must be said that a choir composed primarily of seniors does not achieve the brilliance or firmness of tone compared with one having a greater proportion of members of younger years. That said, the choir does very well. The problem for many choirs, of being weak in tenor numbers (and therefore sound) is not totally redeemed by using women. This does not dispose of the problem, since the register and tone are so different. Nevertheless, they were not totally overcome by the other parts by any means.
This being a short Mass, there was not a lot of repetition of the words; the lovely Benedictus solo for soprano was the only movement with an extended setting. This was beautifully sung by Janey MacKenzie, with warm, assured tone and great clarity, light and shade, and graceful legato. The movement featured an attractive organ solo.
The choir entry sounded rather feeble after such a superb solo. While the forte and mezzo-forte singing was fine, the piano singing was poor; final s’s were all over the place. The altos had the most consistent good tone, but often they could not be heard.
Peter Averi was able to come into his own in the next item: Six little pieces for flute clock, a mechanism made for large clocks by one Joseph Niemecz, an inventor who was librarian at the Esterházy court in 1780. Since the original musical device would have been small, it was well within the capabilities of the digital organ.
The opening allegretto was played with detached notes (as were other movements), appropriately for this music. The second, entitled ‘Gossiping over Coffee’ was very realistic. The fourth, ‘The Quail’ featured high 2-foot sounds replicating the squeaky call of these birds quite delightfully. The last of the six, the March, seemed as amusing a send-up or joke as the other movements. The whole work was utterly charming, and given as good a performance as was possible: this, the digital organ could do, especially in the hands of someone like Peter Averi.
Fittingly, the following item was about birds – the Air from The Creation with the words opening ‘On mighty pens uplifted soars the eagle aloft’ (remember, the first writing pens were quills from birds), and continuing on to characterise the lark, the dove, and the nightingale. Haydn did the most enchanting word-painting in sound of these birds, as of the quail. Janey MacKenzie’s solo here showed that she could make the most of this feature. This, and all the choral items, was sung in English.
The chorus and trio from The Seasons echoed the creation of the world in its words about the plenty of the earth. I felt that the choir knew this music better than they did some of the Little Organ Mass. The three soloists were well-balanced, and their words very clear. Clear too, was Marie Brown’s conducting, and this piece was successful. Throughout the concert, rhythm and tempi were fine.
Further excerpts from The Creation made up the second half. It was good to have the printed words and not have to rely on their being always audible, especially in contrapuntal passages.
Roger Wilson began proceedings solemnly and portentously in declaring the creation of the heaven and the earth. The dramatic chorus that followed contains unison passages which, unfortunately, were not always in unanimity. However, the feeling of drama came over well.
John Beaglehole was thrilling in his first recitative, about the division of light from darkness. His aria was well sung, but there was insufficient phrasing or expression. The choir sang the following chorus very well. The demanding aria ‘The marvellous work’ was exquisitely rendered by Janey MacKenzie.
Roger Wilson was very characterful in the bass recitative and aria that followed, concerning the land and sea. His singing was expressive, clarity of words and pianissimo and especially his lower notes, admirable. The organ part depicted the foaming billows, the mountains, plains and brooks with glorious, and amusing, detail.
The well-known soprano solo ‘With verdure clad’, preceded by its recitative, was most enjoyable. The high notes were refined; the repeat tastefully and appropriately ornamented.
After a jubilant chorus, in which the sopranos sang very well, two bass recitatives and aria aroused amusement with their depiction of the creation of the lion, the tiger, and especially the ‘nimble stag’ with ‘his branching head’, suitably given a fugal treatment in the accompaniment. When it came to the flocks, Wilson made sure they bleated. As for the worm, its ‘sinuous trace’ was slowly revealed on the organ and in the bass’s voice, including what must surely be Roger Wilson’s lowest note.
He revealed also some lovely higher notes in the aria, which was sung with clarity and eloquence. Here, the music caused a smile as the phrase ‘By heavy beasts the ground is trod’ was portrayed.
Tenor recitative and aria followed, telling of the creation of humankind. The captivating ‘In native worth and honour clad’ was sung very competently, but there was a lack character to it, despite some graceful expression and attractive tone.
A final recitative from the bass led to the triumphant chorus ‘Achieved is the glorious work’, sung splendidly by the choir, with the organ at full blast.
The audience greeted this with enthusiasm; the choir should be pleased with its efforts, despite my reservations.