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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Mass in C minor, K427 (1783)
Patricia Petibon (soprano), Lynne Dawson (soprano), Joseph Cornwell (tenor), Alan Ewing (bass)
Les Sacqueboutiers de Toulouse
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
Rec 20-23 April 1999, Abbaye de Lessay, Normandy, France
ELATUS 2564 60333-2 [49.20]



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Mozart wrote no fewer than fifteen settings of the Ordinary of the Mass, but the Mass in C minor, K427, is the only example which dates from the last decade of his life, his years in Vienna. Vienna was one of the major musical centres of Europe, a city which drew Gluck to it a generation before Mozart, and which, later, would attract Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler.

Given that religious choral music had been the staple repertory of Mozart's earlier career in his native Salzburg, the lack of it in Vienna requires explanation. His circumstances as a freelance musician in the city gave him few opportunities in this direction. Moreover the constant feuding between the Emperor Joseph and the Jesuits, and his own position as a committed freemason, combined to create circumstances which only began to change in the last months of his life, when he composed the short motet Ave Verum Corpus and the Requiem.

The Mass in C minor, unlike Mozart's previous settings, is a large-scale cantata mass, the treatment of the text determined by musical rather than liturgical priorities, in the tradition of Haydn's St Cecilia Mass and Bach's Mass in B minor. According to a letter from the composer to his father Leopold, it was intended for performance in Salzburg in the summer of 1783, when he returned home with his wife Constanze. Some evidence, though it is by no means conclusive, suggests that a performance took place in the Peterskirche on 25th August, with Constanze among the soloists.

Perhaps it was the difficulties experienced at this time that led Mozart to abandon his Mass in an incomplete form, leaving aside the concluding Agnus Dei movement. However, he recognised that the music was of high quality, and made use of most of the material in 1785 for an oratorio, the Davidde penitente, K469, which he wrote in connection with supporting a pension fund for Viennese musicians. In any case, the C minor Mass is complete enough to stand as a major work in the repertory of choral music, and large enough for Elatuc to issue it without supporting material on this 50-minute long CD.

The music of the Mass in C minor, which many critics regard as Mozart's masterpiece in the field of religious composition, has a largeness of scale and monumental grandeur which recalls the great baroque choral masterpieces of Bach and Handel, works which Mozart had come to know through his friendship with his fellow freemason Baron Gottfried van Swieten. Swieten had served in Berlin for many years as Austrian ambassador to Prussia, and there he had developed an enthusiasm for baroque music which he brought back to Vienna and shared with the members of his circle, including both Mozart and Haydn.

If anyone is in any doubt about these baroque connections, then listen to the setting of the worcs ‘In eccelsis’ near the beginning of the second movement Gloria. They sound remarkably like Handel’s Alleluia Chorus, and in due course Mozart would offer his own edition of The Messiah, complete with an orchestra including clarinets. Therefore the link is by no means fanciful.

With all these stylistic links with earlier music, a performance by Les Arts Florissants and William Christie holds a special interest. And it does not disappoint. There is an imposing quality about the tempi and phrasing when such an approach is required, such as in the music of the Gratias, but there is a supple flexibility in the following Domine Deus, with delightful solo singing from the two sopranos, Patricia Petibon and Lynne Dawson, the latter perhaps the pick of a team of soloists who work well together.

Christie has studied the score carefully and shapes it with a long-term vision of how it evolves on the large scale. Therefore tensions are maintained, and Mozart’s internal balances are experienced in the textures and the details that emerge. If there are criticisms they are the inevitable ones about quality of sound, when powerfully expressive music such as this is performed by an ‘authentic’ ensemble. Not that this is a worry, it is simply that if you seek greater power, then a performance with larger symphonic forces might deliver this more readily. For those wanting to test and hear, then the Qui tollis will give as good an indication as might be required.

When the fullest tone is needed, in moments such as this, the light string sound may not be to all tastes. But in the context of the whole performance, and so well recorded in such a pleasing church acoustic, the concept works remarkably well.

Terry Barfoot



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