The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s united in saintly song last night for a smashing performance of Mozart’s Requiem and Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis (also called the Nelson Mass). Under guest conductor Andrew Nethsingha, who as Director of the Choir of St. John’s College in Cambridge, England brought hagiographic credentials of his own, and with four excellent soloists in the foreground, the combined forces swelled the cathedral-like Saint Thomas Church in New York City with noise both joyful and anxious, often at the same time.
The boys’ soprano voices, with their gentler tone than women’s, sounded especially salutary in the relatively swirly, technically non-ideal acoustics of this large and very high-ceilinged space. The choir was finely balanced throughout, sharing the sonic space happily with the always surefooted Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Fast passages can get lost in such a place, as happened in the iconic “Confutatis” section of the Mozart. (Movie fans may remember this being used with over-the-top effectiveness during the climax of Amadeus.) But Mozart’s unearthly achievement with the Requiem – assisted by his student Süssmayr, whose contributions rounding out the unfinished work are usually included, as they were here – was on glorious display.
The ensemble glowed with the Requiem‘s magnificent beauty, from soprano Katharine Dain’s sheer clarity in the “Lux Aeterna” to the sensitive pianos and fortes of the “Recordare” and the surprisingly honeyed trombone in the “Tuba Mirum.” Charles Perry Sprawls (bass), Dann Coakwell (tenor), and Brenda Patterson (mezzo-soprano) contributed stellar work too to this transportive evening.
The title Missa in Angustiis, which means a Mass for times of distress or affliction, was not Haydn’s. But the anxious flavors that course through his 1798 work make it easy to imagine the stresses of the Napoleonic Wars. It’s hard to follow up the Mozart Requiem with anything, but the choir, orchestra and soloists brought just as much harmonious finesse to the Haydn, beginning with Dain’s flowing melisma at the start of the “Kyrie eleison,” a piece which displayed right off – as the Mass’s title suggests – plenty of angst.
The soloists shone in the “Gloria,” which reached a peak of half-despairing supplication as Dain repeatedly implored the first word in the phrase “suscipe deprecationem nostram” (“receive our prayer”). The melody darkened into half-steps as the section ended musically unresolved, only to give way to a “Quoniam to solus sanctus” that finished with cascading choral rainbows embodying the “gloria” of its lyrics. The choir’s crystal-clear performance made this one of the performance’s numerous gripping moments.
The greatness of this Mass seemed focused in the “Benedictus” section, which began with an extended instrumental introductory section beautifully expressed by the musicians, and featured lovely work from Dain followed by subtle threading-in of the choir’s low voices and the other soloists’. I was impressed throughout the concert by the clarity of all four soloists’ tones against the full sounds of the orchestra and the large chorus, in a space where muddiness of sound is always a danger.
The “Agnus Dei,” though pervaded by beauty, lacks the placidity of religious surety. Angst remained, and the closing “Dona Nobis Pacem” movement feels too brief to make a firm statement of complete faith. We can only guess at the details of Haydn’s feelings at the time of writing, but this immaculate performance lent an aura of truth to the “Angustiis” of the title.
Tickets and information for the 2015-16 season of Concerts at Saint Thomas are available online.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B002GTZSZU][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0143126067][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B014T6XSOU][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B0020LSWIE][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B000004137]