musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 - 1791): Sacred music

[I] "Music for Salzburg Cathedral"
Inigo Jones, treble; Michael Alchin, boy alto; Guy Cutting, tenor; Patrick Edmond, bass
Choir of New College Oxford; Collegium Novum
Dir: Edward Higginbottom
rec: June 24 - 26, 2013, Oxford, Church of St Michael and All Angels, Summertown
Novum - NCR1388 (© 2013) (63'10")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Litaniae Lauretanae (KV 195 / 186d); Sonata in C (KV 329 / 317a); Vesperae de Dominica (KV 321)

[II] "The Salzburg Marian Mass"
Piotr Alexewicz, Kacper Dawiec, treble; Marcin Liwen, alto; Maciej Gocman, tenor; Jerzy Butryn, bass
NFM Boys' Choir; members of the NFM Choir; Wroclaw Baroque Ensemble
Dir: Andrzej Kosendiak
rec: June 28 - 29, 2014, Wroclaw, Witold Lutoslawski Philharmonic Concert Hall
CD Accord - ACC 215-2 (© 2015) (46'33")
Liner-notes: E/P; lyrics - translations: E/P
Cover & track-list

Ave verum corpus (KV 618); Alma Dei creatoris (KV 277 / 272a); Missa brevis in B flat (KV 275 / 272b); Sancta Maria, mater Dei (KV 273); Sonata in E flat (KV 67 / 41h); Sonata in F (KV 224 / 241a); Sonata in F (KV 244); Sonata in B flat (KV 212)

[WBE] Zbigniew Pilch, Mikolaj Zgólka, violin; Michal Mazur, viola; Janusz Musial, double bass; Ferdinand Hendrich, Hans Martin Schlegel, Johannes Kronfeld, trombone; Marta Niedzwiecka, organ Scores

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has left a large number of sacred works. The complete recording under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt takes no fewer than thirteen discs. However, one doesn't get the impression that it was a very important genre for Mozart. Most of his sacred music was written during his time in Salzburg, where he was in the service of Hieronymus von Colloredo, Prince-Archbishop since 1771. He has earned a pretty bad reputation largely due to Mozart's negative remarks about him. But as so often with Mozart's judgements we have to take his criticism with a grain of salt. It probably tells us more about Mozart than about the Archbishop. It seems mostly a token of Mozart's not feeling at home in Salzburg and being not happy with court life. His ambition was opera and there was little opportunity for him to follow that ambition in Salzburg.

Mozart also gave the impression that Salzburg was a petty, provincial town. That is in contrast to its reputation at the time as it was known as the 'Rome of the North'. In Mozart's time Michael Haydn was the main musical figure - to whom Mozart had a friendly relationship - and Salzburg could look back on such a famous master as Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. In the first quarter of the 18th century a large number of operas by Antonio Caldara were performed; from 1716 on he was vice-Kapellmeister at the imperial court in Vienna and considered one of the greatest composers of his time. By all accounts Colloredo was a good ruler and well educated in artistic matters. The rather bad relationship between the Archbishop and Mozart was also due to the latter's father Leopold who showed much contempt for their employer.

The two discs to be reviewed here comprise some of the sacred music Mozart composed for Salzburg. But the music and the way the respective programmes are put together are very different. Edward Higginbottom has chosen two ambitious works with quite virtuosic solo parts, in particular for soprano, whereas Andrzej Kosendiak attempted a reconstruction of the musical elements of a Mass in Salzburg around one of Mozart's missae breves.

The Litany of Loreto was approved in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V. Its origin is not quite clear but the first texts date from the 1550s; its form goes back as far as the 12th century. It opens with a Kyrie which is followed by a series of glorifications of and invocations to the Virgin Mary and closes with an Agnus Dei. The large middle section comprises a number of lines which all end with the words "ora pro nobis" - pray for us. This text was often set for contrasting forces, for instance a soloist who takes the first part of a sentence and then a choir singing the prayer; it could also be set for two choirs singing antiphonally. Mozart's Litaniae Lauretanae (KV 195) date from 1774 and are divided into five sections: the invocations are split into three, with the shortest section in the middle, Salus infirmorum: "Health of the sick (...), refuge of sinners (...), comforter of the afflicted (...), help of Christians, pray for us". As the text suggests it is set in dark colours (b minor) and includes strong dissonances. In contrast to settings from the past Mozart doesn't create a contrast; in many cases he omits the "ora pro nobis". The second section includes 33 lines; the "ora pro nobis" is sung sixteen times. In the fourth section he entirely omits the three last lines. The soprano has a major role in this work; he opens the Sancta Maria section and takes the largest part of the Agnus Dei.

The Vesperae de Dominica (KV 321) were written in 1779 and may have been performed at Pentecost of that year. The scoring includes parts for trumpets and timpani which denotes a special feast-day presided over by the Archbishop himself, as Adeline Mueller states in her liner-notes. The work consists of five Psalms - Dixit Dominus, Confitebor tibi, Beatus vir, Laudate pueri and Laudate Dominum - as well as the Magnificat. Notable is the contrast between the Laudate pueri and the ensuing Laudate Dominum. In the former Mozart blends elements of the stile antico and the style of his own time whereas Laudate Dominum is set in the manner of an opera aria. It is likely that this was sung by the castrato Francesco Ceccarelli who was a close friend of Mozart's.

Edward Higginbottom separated these two large-scale works by one of Mozart's so-called Epistle sonatas. There are seventeen of them in his oeuvre which were intended for performance during Mass between the Epistle and the Gospel. The scoring of these sonatas is very different, varying from two violins and bc to a full-blown orchestra. The Sonata in C (KV 329) is a specimen of the latter category: it is scored for two oboes, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, two violins, basso continuo and an obbligato organ.

Such sonatas figure prominently in the second recording, but then as part of a kind of liturgical reconstruction. However, they are inserted at different places. The Sonata in B flat is played as the Introitus. An Epistle sonata was usually played between Gloria and Credo, but here we get Sancta Maria, mater Dei (KV 372), a gradual for the feast of the Virgin Mary from 1777, instead. The Credo is followed by the offertory Alma Dei creatoris (KV 277) (dating from 1777, according to the track-list but written around 1781 according to New Grove). The Benedictus is followed by the Sonata in E flat (KV 67), here as a sonata all'elevatione. The Mass closes with Dona nobis pacem and after that we hear two further sonatas: the Sonata in F (KV 244) as communion, and the Sonata in F (KV 224) as postcommunion. I deliberately called this a "kind of" liturgical reconstruction. We probably can't exclude the possibility that the Epistle sonatas have been played at other moments than between Epistle and Gospel, but I find it hard to believe that no fewer than four sonatas were played within one Mass. The Missa brevis in B flat (KV 275) is one of Mozart's short masses; the name missa brevis can cause some confusion as historically this term was used for a mass with only a Kyrie and a Gloria, but - as we have seen - Mozart has set the complete ordinary. As a postlude we hear one of Mozart's most famous works, the motet Ave verum corpus (KV 618, which dates from the year of his death.

These two recordings are interesting for various aspects of performance practice. In her liner-notes to the Novum disc Adeline Mueller mentions the vocal forces which were used in sacred music in Salzburg Cathedral. "The regular Sunday service would be accompanied by a reduced ensemble of five strings, organ continuo and trombones supporting the singers, which would have consisted of only one singer per part". It seems likely that the Missa in B flat was performed at such an occasion. The vocal forces Andrzej Kosendiak uses are considerably larger if we look at the pictures of the recording included in the booklet. "For special services celebrated by a provost or dean, the complete Hofmusikkapelle would have accompanied, but without trumpets and timpani, these used only on high feast days when the Archbishop himself presided". This difference sets the Litaniae Lauretanae and the Vesperae de Dominica apart from each other as the scoring of the latter work includes trumpets and timpani which are absent in the Litanies.

In regard to the instrumental scoring both recordings have something notable to offer. Higginbottom omitted the trombones from the orchestra. In his 'Conductor's perspective' he writes that "[their] place in Mozart's church music of this period has eveything to do with a centuries-old continental practice of bumping the alto, tenor and bass chorus parts. (...) In fact, some contemporary copies of Mozart's church music omit trombone parts. (...) I read the trombones as a means, which we simply did not need, of keeping the chorus in order." This statement shows much self-assurance about the qualities of his choir - and rightly so - but whether this is historically tenable is a different matter. His Collegium Novum includes three cellos, whereas the Wroclaw Baroque Orchestra completely omits the cello. In his liner-notes to the CD Accord disc Zbigniew Pilch writes: "It so happens that in those days the double bass served as the lowest of instruments. This is mentioned by Leopold Mozart in his Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing where he describes this instrument as the most suitable for church as well as chamber music. The double bass of the day had five strings, a wedge under the fingerboard and was tuned to D major with the D string tuned an octave lower. In this recording we have exploited just such an instrument. Moreover, there is a notable absence of cellos in the list of the 1776 Salzburg Kapelle members, which contains violins, one viola, three double basses, three brass instruments and organ".

Let us turn to the vocal forces. Adeline Mueller mentions that Salzburg Cathedral had a choir of 21 gentlemen (three altos, nine tenors and nine basses) as well as fifteen choirboys (ten sopranos, five altos). These figures are based on a report by Leopold Mozart of 1757, so it is possible that the situation was somewhat different in the 1770s. Some singers received additional training to take care of solos. This is in line with the practice in both recordings. For Higginbottom this has always been part of his core business. "This follows a widespread European practice where the vocal resource of an institution comprised a set of solo singers who would be reinforced by ripienists when and if the occasion demanded. Other approaches are problematic, given our knowledge of practice in Salzburg Cathedral and Mozart's markings for the solo inventions". I can only underline the importance of this aspect of performance practice. Before the 19th century most music is basically ensemble music, not music for solo voices, choir and/or instruments. Especially in recordings with all male choirs the use of female soloists for the soprano and alto parts often causes considerable problems.

That is the bonus of these two recordings. In both the solo parts are sung by members of the choir. That by and large results in a strong cohesion between tutti and soli. However, that is not self-evident. I would have liked Guy Cutting to use a little less vibrato in his solo contributions, something he probably avoids when singing in the tutti as I haven't heard any vibrato damaging the choral episodes. Even Inigo Jones is not without it, although it is hardly disturbing. I have nothing but admiration for his contributions; he sings the often demanding parts with impressive ease. The alto and bass have relatively small parts but they sing them well. The solos in the NFM recording are far less challenging, but here all soloists do a very good job.

The music on these two discs is all from the same pen but different in size and stature. I very much enjoyed both discs and I would urge any lover of Mozart's music to add them to their collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Choir of New College Oxford
NFM Choir
Wroclaw Baroque Orchestra

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