Haydn (1732-1809) is primarily known as the father of the symphony for, if the genre was not his own invention, he certainly did more than any of his contemporaries to popularise it, writing one hundred and four numbered works of that kind. A stong argument could be made that he did, indeed, invent the string quartet, and his eighty-three works in that medium contain many classics which still claim a place in the repertoire. In his own day, he was equally famous for a number of his choral works, including the Oratorios the Creation and the Seasons, as well as settings of the mass. Less well-known, however, is this setting of the Stabat Mater from 1767. Newly appointed to the post of Kapellmeister, Haydn was keen to demonstrate his abilities as a composer for the church, and the work became a success in Paris and London, its popularity rivalling that of Pergolesi.
The Stabat Mater is taken from an anonymous poem of the thirteenth century and, in keeping with the solemn nature of the text, fully half of its fourteen movements are in minor keys (the nominal key of the work is the notably tragic G minor), and the majority are in slow tempos. The work properly belongs to Haydn's "Sturm und Drang" (literally "storm and stress") style, along with some of the great middle-period symphonies and his more dramatic settings of the mass. That this work is not better known today is a mystery, since in musical invention it can rival any of his other more familiar works. In this recording, from 1995, Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts in relaxed manner, always in charge of his forces, but never reigning them in, and never allowing the work to wallow in its sense of the grieving mother's tragedy. Harnoncourt has recorded several of Haydn's works, including symphonies, oratorios and masses, and this is an excellent addition to his discography. In this, the two-hundredth anniversary of the composer's death, the Stabat Mater is a work which deserves to be better known.