Haydn and Mozart often get lumped together if for no other reason than they were the leading contemporaries of their day, in much the same way that Bruckner and Mahler are because they each wrote big symphonies. But whereas Mozart was the prototypical revolutionary (think Figaro!), Haydn aligned himself very much with the establishment. Daring at times, yes, but not too much so, religious, but not to an excessive extent, and his sanity and sobriety precluded any whiff of neuroticism. Nevertheless, there was one area in which Haydn had one up on Mozart. His choice of key signatures was often far more adventurous. Although his Creation Mass is largely cast in B flat major, there are abrupt contrasts of tonality and dramatic shifts of key within movements, such as the B flat minor entry of the mezzo in the Kyrie or the end of the Credo where chorus and orchestra surprise the listener with a D flat major. As so often with this composer, the nickname derives from a comparatively small detail. In this case it is a controversial quotation from his oratorio The Creation in the Gloria that almost passes you by unnoticed.

Hilary Davan Wetton © Clive Barda
Hilary Davan Wetton
© Clive Barda

Take away the words of this mass though and you’d be hard pressed to imagine that this could actually be sacred music. In this performance by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the City of London Choir conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton, there was a lightness of touch allied to a lively pacing which served our secular age very well. The exhilarating string lines at the end of the Credo could easily have come from any of his later symphonies. For the most part Davan Wetton shaped the choral and instrumental lines sensitively, often picking out the robust dance-like rhythms of much of the writing and allowing small felicities in the score to emerge naturally, such as the organ obbligato that announces the arrival of the Holy Ghost or the ghostly clarinets at the word mortuos, again in the Credo. His choir delivered a compact and focused body of sound with unflagging momentum, intoning the start of the Sanctus with a hushed reverence and later also summoning up the necessary exuberance at the repeated Osanna in excelsis, both in the Sanctus and Benedictus. However, the sopranos never quite achieved the dramatic brilliance that would have crowned key moments, especially in the Gloria, where the strain in their highest register was palpable. Of the quartet of soloists, the mezzo of Anna Harvey stood out, not least for the fervour that she brought to Qui tollis peccata mundi. The use of a baritone, rather than a true bass, robbed Edward Grint’s solo in the Agnus Dei of its authoritative weight and tonal depth.

It was the Empress Marie-Thérèse, wife of the Habsburg ruler Francis II (not to be confused with her grandmother, the much more famous Maria Theresa), and herself a talented musician, who objected to the use of what she deemed to be an offensively secular quotation in the Creation Mass and required the composer to excise it from the copy she was given. Only a few years earlier Haydn had written his Te Deum in C major in her honour, which in its unalloyed exultation clearly passed muster. The choral contribution in this short work (its three brief sections are over in less than ten minutes) did not quite match the springy and buoyant rhythms provided by the RPO at the start: some of the entries could have been cleaner and sharper and the soprano line sounded slightly undernourished.

The musical partnership of the RPO, the City of London Choir and Davan Wetton are gradually working their way through a cycle of Haydn’s major masses coupled with Mozart’s greatest piano concertos. In this concert it was the turn of K482 with Llŷr Williams as the soloist. From an energising and athletic start with the flute, clarinet and horn nicely breaking through the crisp string textures (antiphonal violins!) provided by the RPO, it was something of a disappointment to hear a piano voice that was a little tentative and rhythmically somewhat metronomic. Not all pianists have to be overly assertive in Mozart, but too much self-effacement, especially in a key like E flat major, deprives us of the inherent heroism and the vibrant spirit in this richly expressive score. In the central Andante this reticence mattered less, and here Williams demonstrated a larger palette of colour, chiefly in the passages of unaccompanied playing. Davan Wetton set an entirely judicious tempo at the outset of the rondo finale, in which Williams seemed at his happiest and most relaxed, displaying a Mendelssohnian grace and elegance to his neat fingerwork and an Apollonian clarity in his final cadenza.