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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 - 1791): Mass in c minor & Requiem

[I] Mass in c minor (KV 427)
Ana Maria Labin, Ambroisine Bré, soprano; Stanislas de Barbeyrac, tenor; Norman Patzke, bass
Les Musiciens du Louvre
Dir: Marc Minkowski
rec: Dec 2018, Grenoble, MC2
Pentatone - PTC 5186 812 (© 2020) (48'28")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[II] Requiem in d minor (KV 626) (ed. Michael Ostrzyga)
Gabriela Scherer, soprano; Anke Vondung, contralto; Tilman Lichdi, tenor; Tobias Berndt, bass
Chorwerk Ruhr; Concerto Köln
Dir: Florian Helgath
rec: August 16 - 17, 2019, Cologne, Studio Stolberger Straße
Coviello Classics - COV92009 (© 2020) (51'02")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART: Requiem in d minor (KV 626); Ignaz Ritter VON SEYFRIED (1776-1841): Libera me

[III] Requiem in d minor (KV 626) (ed. Franz Xaver Süßmayr)
Rachel Redmond, soprano; Marianne Beate Kielland, mezzo-soprano; Mingjie Lei, tenor; Manuel Walser, baritone
La Capella Nacional de Catalunya; Le Concert des Nations
Dir: Jordi Savall
rec: May 11 - 13, 2022, Cardona, Castell de Cardona (Collegiata de Sant Vicenç)
AliaVox - AVSA9953 (© 2023) (44'40")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I/ES/CAT; no lyrics
Cover & track-list


It is ironic that some of the great masterpieces of music history, which are frequently performed and recorded, are surrounded by mysteries. That goes for Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Vergine and for Bach's Mass in b minor, and also for two of Mozart's greatest sacred works, the Mass in c minor and the Requiem. The latter works have been preserved incomplete; in the case of the Requiem we know that this was due to Mozart's death, but why he did not finish the composition of the mass is not known.

Mozart wrote sixteen masses and a large number of other sacred works during his time in Salzburg. He moved to Vienna in 1781, and from that year until his death he composed just two masses. The reason is that in Salzburg the composition of sacred music was part of his duties, as he was in the service of the Prince-Archbishop Colloredo. In Vienna he worked on a freelance basis as a composer, keyboard player and teacher. There were no specific reasons for him to compose a mass, and that raises the first question: why did he start writing the Mass in c minor? After his death, his wife Constanze told her second husband Georg Nikolaus Nissen, who wrote a biography of Mozart, that the mass had been "solemnly promised for his wife when her confinement was happily over", referring to the birth of her first child. It was she who sang in the first performance on 26 October 1783 in the Abbey Church of St Peter in Salzburg. However, the work was not complete at that time; it probably consisted only of the Kyrie and Gloria, and the music for the other sections may have been taken from earlier masses.

The explanation by Constanze seems clear enough, but - without suggesting that it was a product of her fantasy or bad memory - there are doubts whether this is the whole story. One of the reasons is the sheer size of the work, both in length and in scoring. It has often been remarked that if the work had been completed, it may have been comparable with Bach's Mass in b minor. It is useful to mention the latter, because Mozart had become acquainted with the music by Bach and Handel. He was clearly impressed; in the case of Handel, it resulted in his arranging some of the large-scale vocal works, and his enthusiasm for Bach's music was expressed in the arrangements of a number of fugues for string quartet. The influence of Bach's use of counterpoint is obvious in the Mass in c minor, which is mixed with features of contemporary opera, which come especially to the fore in the solo episodes. 'Et incarnatus est' is an aria for soprano, which would not have been out of place in one of Mozart's own operas. The chorus 'Qui tollis' is one of the most dramatic parts of this work.

Like in the case of the Requiem, several attempts have been made to reconstruct the missing parts. One of them is the version of H.C. Robbins Landon, which does not include any completely new material. Minkowski, for his recording, opted for the edition by Helmut Eder, which - if I interpret the liner-notes correctly - is based on Robbins Landon's version; it was created at the request of the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe (1985).

It seems to me that in most performances the dramatic features are given more prominence than the counterpoint. I have yet to encounter a performance that really satisfies me. It is often the solo episodes that are the most unsatisfying. The sopranos always use far too much vibrato, which makes their contributions hard to swallow. That is also the case with the recording under the direction of Marc Minkowski. The problem concerns all four soloists, but in this work the contributions of tenor and bass are relatively modest. I can't say I am impressed by what they bring to the table here. Their contributions suffer from the same shortcomings as the solos of the sopranos, and as a result the solo voices don't blend very well. The tutti are sung by a 'ripieno choir', comprising only nine voices (SSSAATTBB). Its sound has some sharp edges, and I have heard better choral formations than here, and again the clearly notable vibrato within the ensemble makes the tutti rather unsatisfying. Minkowski opted for rather swift tempi; the 'Qui tollis' is more than a minute shorter than other recordings I consulted. This is definitely not a recording I will return to, if I want to listen to Mozart's Mass in c minor.

Like in the case of the mass, there are questions with regard to the reasons why Mozart wrote his Requiem. Many myths have been woven around this work, mainly due to the early death and the reputation of its composer as well as the quick rise of this work as one of his most famous. It was often performed in the early decades of the 19th century, for instance at the funeral of Beethoven, which was attended by Schubert. Much has been written about this issue, both in musicological publications and in the liner-notes of the many recordings that are available. Therefore it is not discussed here.

A second issue - and much more important from the angle of performance practice - is what exactly was written by Mozart. The recording directed by Florian Helgath comes with a booklet whose track-list indicates with different colours which parts are from Mozart's pen, which ones he drafted, and for which there is no material by the composer. The latter brings us to the heart of the matter, as there has been much debate whether Franz Xaver Süßmayr, whose edition is the one that has been and is still most frequently performed, rightly claimed that his completion is largely based on sketches by Mozart himself. This has been questioned, as is the talent of Süßmayr himself. With time his edition has lost some ground, and whereas in the past conductors sometimes made slight changes in the instrumentation, in more recent times several scholars have attempted to create alternative reconstructions which aim to come closer to what Mozart may have had in mind. Obviously the results of these efforts have to remain speculative, as we just don't know how Mozart would have set the texts for which he has not left any music. It is notable that Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who always aimed at going to the sources, recorded the Requiem in Süßmayr's edition, which can be interpreted as a defense of the poor man against his critics.

There are quite a number of editions available to modern performers. The two directors of the recordings under review here have taken different decisions in this matter. Florian Helgath decided to perform an edition by the German composer Michael Ostrzyga (2019), who also wrote the liner-notes to the recording. He does not go into detail about his edition, but it is useful to quote his description of its principles. "The divergences from Süßmayr are so many and so intricate, that often more than one possible scenario can be envisaged, and the new edition offers alternatives in some cases. It therefore bears some resemblance to editions of the St John Passion or Messiah, in which alternative movements from different contemporary performances record the changing preferences of Bach and Handel. This Requiem can, then, in performance, never become the work of a single composer. Different stages in its life correspond to possible scenario; the performers must choose according to their intuitions and preferences. (...) The attempt at completion is not an attempt to show 'what Mozart would have done'. They are only individual impressions. Personal experience and sensibility are reflected in them, as is the case in every treatment of such questions. The completion recorded here took as their goal the reconstruction of the most likely solutions for November/December 1791. Mozart's view to Bach and Handel was to be more strongly exploited, as well as his own tonal language (...) rather than the general practice of his time." From this one may conclude that the 'old' edition of Mozart/Süßmayr (with contributions by Joseph Eybler) was the starting point and the new edition offers alternatives for some sections of the Requiem.

Jordi Savall, in his performance, decided to stick to the conventional edition by Süßmayr. In the booklet he does mention the doubts about the accessibility of sketches by Mozart to Süßmayr, but states: "All these various sources of information lead us to believe that Süssmayr was as faithful as possible to his master, which is why, when it comes to instrumentation, we have gone back to Mozart's original version completed in the first movements by Freystädtler and Süssmayr, with some slight adjustments in the Tuba mirum, which allow us to reveal the Mozartian spirit with maximum purity, while in the last movements we have followed Süssmayr's versions."

One may wonder whether this really matters. I suspect that the general listener won't care very much about these issues, as the differences don't turn the Requiem into a completely different work. Those who have a special interest in Mozart and his Requiem may certainly be interested in comparing the various versions. The recording by Helgath offers the possibility to get acquainted with Ostrzyga's edition, even though we get here - if I understand his essay correctly - the choices of Helgath, where another director may make a different choice from the material.

Let's turn to the actual performance. The choirs are different in size: Chorwerk Ruhr comprises 32 singers, La Capella Nacional de Catalunya just twenty. It is hard to decide which is closer to the practice of Mozart's time. The size of the choir does not tell us much about its impact in the tutti episodes. I like both vocal ensembles; in that respect I don't have any preferences. It is due to the interpretation that I feel that Savall is the most dramatic in the Dies irae, the Rex tremendae and the Confutatis. His 'attack' is just a little stronger and the dynamic contrasts somewhat larger. There are substantial differences in the solo department, and here I strongly prefer Savall. Helgath's soloists are good, but their singing is marred by an incessant wobble, which damages the blending of the four voices and also their integration in the entire ensemble. In that respect the four soloists of Savall are much more convincing. No wide vibrato here - not even from Rachel Redmond, whom I have heard several times with quite some of it - and in the ensembles the voices blend perfectly; in the episodes for soloists and chorus they are fully integrated. Both orchestras are excellent. The list of players of Concerto Köln includes two players of clarinets; Savall uses bassethorns, which gives some special colour to the orchestral sound, which fits the Requiem.

Florian Helgath has something interesting to offer, in addition to the Requiem. The performance closes with a setting of the Libera me by Ignaz Ritter von Seyfried. He claimed to be a pupil of Mozart, which has been impossible to prove. He gained some prominence as the conductor of the first performance of Beethoven's opera Fidelio. His setting of the Libera me, which was not part of the funeral service, but rather of the graveside ritual, was written for male voices without instrumental accompaniment. He wrote it for a performance at Beethoven's funeral in 1827. It was later arranged for mixed choir and orchestra, but here we get the original version, which is recorded here for the first time. It should be better known, as it is quite a moving piece. It receives an excellent performance here by the tenors and basses of the choir. Its inclusion is a good case to investigate this recording, apart from considerations with regard to edition and performance of Mozart's Requiem.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Stanislas de Barbeyrac
Tobias Berndt
Ambroisine Bré
Marianne Beate Kielland
Ana Maria Labin
Mingjie Lei
Tilman Lichdi
Norman Patzke
Rachel Redmond
Manuel Walser
Chorwerk Ruhr
Concerto Köln
Le Concert des Nations
Les Musiciens du Louvre

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