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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 - 1791): Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots (KV 35)

Sophie Bevan (Der Weltgeist), Sarah Fox (Die göttliche Barmhherzigkeit), soprano; Cora Burggraaf (Die göttliche Gerechtigkeit), mezzo-soprano; Allan Clayton (Ein lauer Christ), Andrew Kennedy (Der Christgeist), tenor
The Orchestra of the Classical Opera
Dir: Ian Page

rec: August 29 - 31, 2012, London, Blackheath Halls
Signum Classics - SIGCD343 (2 CDs) (© 2013) (84'42")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/F/I
Cover, track-list & booklet

In Mozart's time the genre of the oratorio was still quite important. Many of his contemporaries wrote oratorios, mostly in Italian, but Mozart's main contributions to this genre were his arrangements of oratorios by Handel which he became acquainted with through Gottfried von Swieten. However, in his early years he composed several oratorios but they don't receive that much attention, a fate they share with his early operas. There is no reason to ignore them, because in these works the dramatic skills of the composer come already to the fore. That is also the case with Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots which was first performed in 1767.

Strictly speaking this is not an oratorio. On the title page it as called a 'sacred Singspiel', and fits in a long tradition of morality plays. One of the most famous is Cavalieri's Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo, and another specimen of this genre is Handel's Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. The central character has to make a choice about which path to follow in life. He is approached by various characters, representing opposing ideals and arguing in favour of their views. In this particular work it is Ein lauer Christ (a half-hearted Christian) who is fast asleep at the start of the work. Three allegorical figures - Der Christgeist (The Spirit of Christianity), Die göttliche Barmherzigkeit (Divine Mercy) and Die göttliche Gerechtigkeit (Divine Justice) - discuss his position. They agree that the problem is the Christian's inertia. The Spirit of Christianity decides that he has to wake him up through a dream about the coming Day of Judgment. When the Christian wakes up he is confused and doesn't know what to make of it. He is approached by Der Weltgeist (The Spirit of Worldliness) who tries to convince him that he should ignore his dream and should enjoy the pleasant things in life: "The Creator has given us this life and free run of the world, so rejoice, laugh, have fun and let dreams be dreams".

It was common practice that a piece like this had an happy end and the key character decided to choose the path of virtue. That is not the case here, at least not in Mozart's work. The reason is that he only set the first part of the libretto, which was written by Ignaz Anton Weiser. The second part was set by Johann Michael Haydn, the third by Anton Cajetan Adlgasser. These two settings have been lost which is regrettable, especially from a dramatic point of view. One can only guess what Mozart's older colleagues made of their parts of the drama.

The reception of this work in our time is mixed. It is assessed rather negatively in the Mozart Companion (ed. H.C. Robbins Landon) (*), but Ian Page has a different view. "Even without making allowances for the composer's remarkable youth Mozart's music for the first part of Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots is highly accomplished, full of flair and artistry. The allegorical figures of Barmherzigkeit and Gerechtigkeit are clearly differentiated, the former's sympathetic compassion contrasting with the latter's more matronly severity, while Weltgeist's carefree hedonism is given full reign in arias of considerable virtuosity". He goes on by pointing out the significant role of the orchestra, with an instrumentation which is "more adventurous than anything Mozart had previously attempted".

I am not sure about the difference between Barmherzigkeit and Gerechtigkeit; at least I didn't notice it that clearly, but that could be just me. I would have liked the two voices for these roles to be more different in sound and character. Especially in the exchange of recitatives between the two - following the first aria - it is not easy to tell them apart without the libretto at hand. Page is certainly right about the part of Weltgeist which is brilliant and technically demanding. The arias point in the direction of the virtuosic opera and concert arias which Mozart would write later in his career. The orchestral part is colourful and emphasizes the drama as it unfolds. Interesting is the inclusion of a trombone which traditionally refers to the Last Judgment. It has an obbligato part in the aria 'Jener Donnerworte Kraft' of Der laue Christ, whose B part explicitly refers to the 'Last Trumpet' ("den Posaunenschall"). But it has already turned up somewhat earlier, when he tells about his dream in an accompanied recitative: "But the words still resound in my mind: 'Wake up, lazy scoundrel! You must give an exact reckoning of your life".

As far as I can remember this is the first time I heard this work. It is not easy to understand why it is ignored. One reason could be that it is different from what many expect from Mozart as this work with its sequence of recitatives and arias is still firmly rooted in the baroque style. Another factor could be that Mozart only set the first part of the libretto; as a result there is something unfinished about it from a dramatic point of view. However, the music is such that it deserves to be performed. One can only be thankful for this recording, even if it is not entirely satisfying. That is mainly due to the style of singing: as we come to expect these days, most of the singers use too much vibrato. Fortunately it is not as bad here as in some other recordings I have heard recently. It won't make me advise you against investigating this recording, especially as I am not aware of a better alternative. Apart from the vibrato there is little to complain, except the cadenza in the dacapo of Weltgeist's aria 'Hat der Schöpfer dieses Leben' which is far too long, and the recitatives being often a bit too strict in time. A further positive aspect is that the text is mostly clearly audible, thanks to a good diction and articulation, and that goes especially for Andrew Kennedy.

From a dramatic angle this is a very convincing performance. The interaction between the protagonists is remarkably good, considering that this is a studio production. The soloists give a good account of their respective roles, especially Sophie Bevan as Weltgeist and Allan Clayton who exposes the insecurity of Der laue Christ very well.

Hopefully this recording will bring the quality of this work to the attention of audiences as well as fellow performers. That should result in more frequent performances and maybe alternative recordings.

(*) I have used the Dutch edition (Brilliant Classics, 1999/2001)

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Cora Burggraaf
Allan Clayton
Sarah Fox
Classical Opera

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