Hummel Masses; Alma Virgo
Following up his masterly series of recordings of the Haydn Masses, Richard Hickox with the choir and orchestra of Collegium 90 tackles two works in the same tradition. Haydn, having rounded off his career writing a new setting of the Mass each year for the nameday of Princess Esterházy, stopped after the Harmoniemesse of 1802, even though he retained the title of Kapellmeister until his death in 1809. Johann Fuchs and Beethoven (with his Mass in C) temporarily carried on the tradition. But it was Hummel who, as Konzertmeister of the Esterházy court from 1804, wrote a sequence of five Masses for the Esterházy celebrations, culminating in the two on this disc, the last of the line, and ending a fruitful tradition.
When the glories of Haydn’s late Masses have been widely appreciated, it is sad that Hummel’s have been so neglected. They are for chorus and orchestra alone, without soloists, which may have deterred potential performers. However, while they cannot quite match late Haydn or Beethoven in originality, they are lively, beautifully written, and full of striking ideas, inspiring Hickox and his team to performances here just as electrifying as those they have given of Haydn, and just as vividly recorded.
Though the Mass in D has the later opus number, it is the earlier of the two, written for the nameday celebration of 1808. Starting in sombre mood, the Kyrie builds up to a striking passage involving scrunching harmonies, with the four sections of the Gloria dramatically contrasted, ending with a fugal setting of ‘Cum sancto spirito’ on a theme with syncopations. The Credo begins unexpectedly gently with a rising horn motif in triple time, easily flowing, with Hummel adopting his characteristic trick of maintaining momentum with running quavers or semiquavers, an effect which recurs in both of these Masses. Another fugue on ‘Et vitam venturi’ rounds the section off joyfully, again in triple time.
Hummel follows Haydn in both Masses in his fondness for such fugues. Similarly, he follows Haydn in offering joyfully energetic settings of ‘Dona nobis pacem’, only unlike Haydn he does not end either Mass on a fortissimo cadence, instead fading down the final phrases, maybe for liturgical reasons in the context of a church performance. Hummel, like Haydn and Beethoven before him, fully brings out the drama of the liturgy, though in both settings of ‘Et resurrexit’ he begins not with a sudden fortissimo but with a rising crescendo, as though a crowd of bystanders are gradually appreciating the wonder of it.
Another symbolic point is that the Mass in B flat, dating from 1810, the year before Hummel left the Esterházy court, includes a setting of the Credo with distinctive unison and octave passages for the chorus, as though to emphasise unity of belief. In both masses the settings of the Sanctus are surprisingly brief, even perfunctory, yet the musical ideas could not be more striking, with a gently flowing 6/8 setting in the D major work and a bold setting in the B flat Mass which crams into the shortest span surprisingly varied ideas.
The setting of Alma Virgo, with Susan Gritton the pure-toned soloist, is in effect an aria in two sections, the second bringing in the chorus an initially measured setting of ‘Alleluia’ which brings in whooping horns at the end. Welcome as it has been in recent years to discover Hummel’s piano concertos, I am even more grateful to have these Hummel Masses thanks to the imagination of Richard Hickox. I only hope he will now go on to complete the series.