This was a programme of liturgical works of very varying levels of formality, written in circumstances of danger, alienation and exile. Haydn's 1798 Missa in Angustiis (“Mass in a Time of Peril”, nicknamed the “Nelson Mass”) was composed in time of peril, specifically the proximity of Napoleon's forces to Haydn's place of employment and home at Esterházy. This urgency was certainly communicated by the first of the vocal soloists, soprano Sophie Bevan. Positioned in front of the 45-strong Collegium Vocale Gent, but behind the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the powerful reach of her coloratura passages was all the more impressive. The passion expressed was rightly more operatic than ecclesiastical. There is also a symphonic strand to the work; Haydn avoids complete arias for one soloist, preferring the singers to blend with one another as well as with the choir and orchestra. The result is a tightly woven texture greatly assisted here by fine balance across choir and orchestra. Herreweghe seemed to achieve this with little fuss. The Qui tollis pecata mundi section of the Gloria was a fine case in point, where interest passed elegantly from Matthew Rose's fine bass voice to the chorus to Robin Williams' solo oboe.

Collegium Vocale Gent © Michiel Hendrickx
Collegium Vocale Gent
© Michiel Hendrickx

Choral energy in the Credo's dynamic sections convincingly communicated a renewed confidence fuelled by the stated beliefs. The contrast between the tenderness of the Et in carnatus est and the brimming joy of Et resurrexit illustrated control of huge dynamic range. In more ebullient moments, Herreweghe's floating style of conducting was transformed, small jumps suggesting visceral involvement with the music. The volume of the closing Dona nobis pacem truly suggested peace sought rather than present – something with which we can perhaps resonate in our own troubled times.

Stephen Johnson's informative programme notes mentioned Bruckner's loneliness and depression in Vienna, along with his devout Catholic faith. There was certainly a feeling of heartfelt pleading communicated in the latter half of his 1861 Ave Maria where the intercession of Sancta Maria is sought. The emotional quality in the rising tenors in ora pro nobis (pray for us) suggested equal need of solace "now and at the hour of our death".

The more chromatic and energetic 1884 Christus factus est (Christ for us) stressed, by threefold repetition of obediens, the importance of Christ's obedience in the face of, to say the least, highly unfavourable outcome. The word painting on "super", referring to "a name which is above every name" was beautifully done. The power was impressive, as was its de-escalation in the delicately involved chromatic ending. The bass voices sounded incredibly rich here.

The sopranos stretched choral range in the opposite direction on "meditabitur" (exercised) in Bruckner's 1879 Os justi (The mouth of the just is exercised in wisdom). The very opposite approach was nicely achieved in the closing moments where "and his footsteps will not be distracted" was delivered with the lack of fuss fitting for such a claim.

Bizarre as it may seem, Stravinsky's 1930 Symphony of Psalms is etched into the Scottish psyche - at least for the generation who digested this "set work" when studying Music at school in the 1970s. The sound of it thrills me now as then. At that solipsistic age I'd not considered Stravinsky missing Russia, and was even less aware of any Russian Orthodox inclinations. However, Stravinsky being Stravinsky, there is distance in the language (Latin replacing the Russian he'd originally envisaged) and certainly in the music. The snaking woodwind lines underpinning Psalm 38's pleading certainly make for a wonderfully ambiguous sound world. The huge increase in dynamics across this movement was excellently paced. Stravinsky's omission of violins, violas and clarinets ensures domination by more pungent oboes and bassoons and there was some very fine playing in this movement.

The score's five flutes catch the eye and most certainly the ear in the slowly unfolding fugue which depicts the stoicism described in Psalm 39, Expectans expectavi Dominum (I waited patiently for The Lord). Wonderful brass playing supported the psalm's later rejoicing in renewed fortune and purpose.

The most ironic moment in the work comes in the closing Psalm 150, Alleluia. Laudate Dominum. The rhythm and underscoring of repeated iterations of "Laudate" insinuate something approaching menace. Moreover when "the loud cymbals" are mentioned, none sound and the dynamic is quiet. Virtuosically delivered piano lines energised much of this movement. This final section was completely magical. There is a slight Hollywood feel to it notwithstanding its exquisite weirdness. The balance and separation of choral and instrumental sounds here was spellbinding and, I'd imagine, only possible in live performance in an acoustic as fine as the Usher Hall's. Audience response to this fine performance was hearty, vocal and sustained.

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