by Deirdre Donovan
The soul-stirring sounds of Mozart’s Requiem and Haydn's Missa in
Angustiis (Nelson Mass) swelled through Saint Thomas Church in a one-night only
concert on November 12th, with the renowned Saint
Thomas Choir of Men and Boys and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s joining their
talents. As their inaugural concert of the season, it had a frisson of
excitement and a rich autumnal feel to it. And those in attendance were
treated to a real classical feast for the ears in this historic Fifth Avenue
The first offering was Mozart’s Requiem. While this piece
has gained much notoriety over the years and became even more familiar through
Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus and later film of the same name, this
fresh performance of the work allowed one to take off the romantic-colored
glasses and really listen to this liturgical composition in earnest. And what
could be a more ideal setting for it than Saint Thomas Church with its elegant
stained glass windows and smoothly polished wooden pews? The program included
the text to the mass in Latin and English, allowing the audience to follow each
sacred song, word by word, as the orchestra and choir, dressed in flame-red,
So how did this (unfinished) masterpiece come into existence? And
what parts did Mozart actually compose? Well, according to the program notes,
Mozart composed seventy-five per cent of the Requiem (Requiem, Kyrie, part
of Dies Irae, and Domine Jesu), with his devoted pupil
Franz Xavier Sussmayr completing the rest (Sanctus and Agnus De).
But that said, there’s no question that the poetic impulse and indelible
musical character of the Requiem belong to Mozart alone.
True, everybody has his, or her, favorite movement in the
Requiem. But the opening phrases of the Introitus and Kyrie are
impossible to ignore, with their dark tonal rhythms accompanied by the
century-old words. And as the various orchestral instruments—violins, violas,
clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, trombones, and timpani—slowly came into play
here, the audience grew hushed and silently embraced the beloved and timeworn
piece. Guest conductor Andrew Nethsingha shepherded the orchestra through the
intricate phrasing of each movement, and the pitch-perfect chorus added a human
pulse. While I have heard this work on many superb recordings over the years,
this live performance--with solos sung by soprano Katharine Dain, mezzo-soprano
Brenda Patterson, tenor Dann Coakwell and bass Charles Perry Sprawls--proved
that the Requiem only reveals its secrets on repeated revisits.
The second offering was Haydn’s Missa in Augustiis (Nelson Mass).
Translated “Mass for times of distress,” anybody listening to the work would
likely feel an increase of hope, faith, and more. Many scholars rank it as
Haydn’s greatest work--and those newly listening to it at Saint Thomas Church
would hardly argue with that verdict. This mass (1798) was written in the same
decade as the Requiem, and though it clearly is a musical cousin to Mozart’s
famous work, it also possesses a unique joy and celebratory spirit that sharply
contrast it with the earlier composition.
Although no one has pinned down, once and for all, how the piece
became dubbed the “Nelson Mass,” many have speculated that it might be linked
to Admiral Horatio Nelson’s military victory over Napoleon at the Battle of the
Nile. And if that seems like a stretch, there’s the tale that Lord Nelson
himself visited the Palais Esterhazy in 1800, with his mistress, and listened
to the mass. But, say what you will, the nickname for Haydn’s Missa in
Augustiis rings down the ages.
Looking beyond its legendary nickname, the composition has clear
martial overtones threaded through the score that imbue it with a powerful
character. Haydn composed it on the heels of his Creation when he was at the
top of his game as a composer. And, in spite of the fact that there are no
woodwinds in the piece (possibly due to Haydn’s financial constraints), the
strings, organ, trumpets, and timpani join together with a robust force. The
piece is known for its antithetical character, where dark and light themes are
set against each other, sometimes in the same movement. It is the third of the
master’s six late masses. And with Nethsingha conducting, and the orchestra
and choir in fine form (with solos by virtuosos Dain, Patterson, and Coakwell),
there’s no question that it was a first-rate rendering of Haydn’s mass.
Even more than the impressive talent of the artists here, the
setting of the concert at Saint Thomas Church spoke volumes. It
signaled that both masses were meant, not as commercial vehicles, but as
liturgical compositions—and healing salves for those in distress or
If you haven’t been to a concert at this historic venue, you
really should include it on your holiday calendar. The Messiah, in fact, is
their next concert (on December 8th and 10th). Go for
the listening, exit with a blessing.
One performance only, November 12th.
at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, One West 53rd
For more information, and to order concert tickets and recordings
online, visit www.SaintThomasChurch.org