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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 - 1791): Masses

[I] Mass in c minor (KV 427)
Gillian Keith, soprano; Tove Dahlberg, mezzo-soprano; Thomas Cooley, tenor; Nathan Berg, bass-baritone
Handel & Haydn Society
Dir: Harry Christophers

rec: Jan 2010 (live), Boston, Mass., Symphony Hall
Coro - COR16084 (© 2010) (54'10")

[II] "Così fan tutte-Messe" (arr anon)
Siri Thornhill, sopranoa; Ursula Eittinger, mezzo-sopranob; Hubert Nettinger, tenorc; Stefan Geyer, bassd
German Mozart Orchestra
Dir: Franz Raml

rec: June 3 - 4, 2006, Rot an der Rot, Kloster Roggeburg & Abtei
Oehms Classics - OC 916 (© 2008) (74'24")

[II] anon: March in C (KV 408,3); Mass in C (KV Anh 235e) (after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro)abcd; Symphony in C 'Jupiter' (KV 551)

The Mass in c minor by Mozart is a large-scale work and would have been even larger if Mozart would have completed it. Why he didn't is not known, and has led to much speculation. Not only we don't know why he didn't finish it, it is also unknown why he composed it in the first place and exactly for which occasion.

In 1781 Mozart cut off his ties with Hieronymus Colloredo, Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg with whom he had been in conflict almost from the moment they met. He moved to Vienna to enjoy independence. So there was no reason to compose a mass. What is also remarkable is the scale of this mass, not only in length but also in scoring. It would hardly fit in a normal liturgical framework. There seems a kind of common view among scholars that Mozart wrote it first and foremost as a way to try to integrate the compositional styles of Bach and Handel into his own. In Vienna Mozart had renewed his contact with Baron van Swieten, who introduced him to the compositions of those masters of the baroque era. Mozart seems to have grown to like them, and the contrapuntal style of Bach in particular has left its mark in this mass. The 'Qui tollis' from the Gloria is particularly telling example. At the same time the episodes for solo voices are reflecting his own style, strongly influenced by opera.

The fact that he never finished the work is all the more intriguing as in 1785 he used the parts which he had finished for the text of the oratorio Davidde penitente. But this reversion to his mass which he had written in 1782 didn't encourage him to finish it. As far as we know only one public performance of the mass took place, but the Credo was not sung. Mozart had composed only two parts from this section, 'Credo in unum Deum' and 'Et incarnatus est'. The Kyrie, the Gloria and the Benedictus are complete, whereas the Sanctus is fragmentary, but can partly be reconstructed from secondary sources.

Considering the scale and the quality of this mass setting it doesn't wonder it has been frequently recorded. So far I haven't found a performance which satisfied me. It is often the solo parts which disappoint me, because of operatic - in the 19th-century sense of the word - and unstylish singing. The 'Domine Deus' from the Gloria is the most problematic part as here the two high voices often blend badly because of the use of a wide vibrato. Unfortunately that isn't any different here. It is against everything we know about the way vibrato was used in the 18th century. Conductors like Harry Christophers should know that. Then why do they ignore it? Two other sections for solo voices also suffer from it: 'Laudamus te' (soprano II), 'Quoniam tu solus Sanctus' (sopranos and tenor). 'Et incarnatus est' (Credo) comes off relatively well, and the quartet in the Benedictus is also reasonably well done.

But the solo episodes metioned above are not the only problem. With 38 singers the choir is too big. Moreover they sing with quite some vibrato as well, and as a result the contrapuntal sections are not as transparent as they should be. In his personal notes in the booklet Harry Christophers praises the acoustics of the Symphony Hall in Boston. I don't know whether the recording is a true reflection of these, but if it is I beg to differ. I find the acoustics too dry and the recording too direct. The sound spectrum doesn't have enough depth and space.

Mozart's use of his Mass in c minor for the oratorio Davidde penitente is an example of a parody, which was a common practice in the renaissance and baroque. Although a parody mostly was the replacement of a secular with a sacred text, sometimes - like in this case - one sacred text was replaced with another. The Mass Franz Raml has recorded is an example of a parody in the common sense of the word. Here the anonymous composer has cut and pasted several passages from Mozart's opera Così fan tutte and used it for various passages from the Mass. This work is also a pasticcio: in addition to fragments from Mozart's opera he added some original music of his own, like the beginning of the Gloria and large parts of the Credo.

This Mass has probably been written or put together around 1800 and has been preserved in several sources. It is a testimony to the great popularity of Mozart's music which didn't wane in the 19th century. The offertorio which Raml has included in the Mass dates from the mid-19th century, and is also anonymous. Here the aria 'Deh se piacer' from La clemenza di Tito has been adapted to the text 'Laudibus coelum sonet': "The heavens sound with songs of praise, the earth applaus with joy".

It may be rather odd to listen to compositions like these, in particular for those who are familiar with Mozart's operas. Fortunately I am not, so it was less of a problem from that perspective. Still, I find it odd to hear the 'Dona nobis pacem' with the music of 'Fortunato l'uom' from the finale of Così fan tutte. But then, on the whole this Mass isn't that different from the sacred music of the time. If one prefers the more serious style of sacred music of previous eras, the sacred repertoire of the classical period if often hard to swallow anyway. But from a musical point of view this recording is an interesting addition to the catalogue and an extension of our knowledge about the Mozart reception in the decades after his death.

Franz Raml has chosen a performance with soloists, without a choir. In his liner-notes he doesn't give any reasons for that, and I am not sure whether this was a wise decision. The soloists deliver good performances and their voices blend reasonably well, but when the orchestra plays with full power the balance is less than ideal.

In addition we get a march and the last symphony which is recorded numerous times. I would have preferred some other lesser-known stuff - or other arrangements of Mozart's music - instead. The interpretation isn't bad at all, and in particular the andante cantabile is beautifully performed. But in the first and last movement I would have liked a sharper articulation and a slightly faster tempo. The menuetto is a bit flat and lacks some spirit. The main attraction of this disc is the parody Mass and that is the reason Mozart lovers shouldn't miss it.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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