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CLASSICAL  November 2006

CLASSICAL November 2006

Subject:

Mozart's "Great" Mass in C minor

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 27 Nov 2006 10:26:29 -0600

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     Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
     Mass in c, KV427 (417a)

*  Mass in c (new version by Robert D. Levin)

Diana Damrau (soprano I), Juliane Banse (soprano II), Lothar Odinius
(tenor), Markus Marquardt (bass)
Gachinger Kantorei Stuttgart
Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Helmut Rilling
Hanssler Classic CD98.227 Total time: 76:33


*  Great Mass in c, K. 427 (417a)
*  Haydn:
        Berenice, che fai? (Hob. XXIVa:10)
*  Beethoven:
        Ah! perfido, op. 65

Camilla Tilling (soprano I), Sarah Connolly (soprano II), Timothy
Robinson
(tenor), Neal Davies (bass)
Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh
DG Arkhiv B0005762-02 Total time: 73:49

Summary for the Busy Executive: Mozart and almost-Mozart.

Unfortunately, Mozart never completed his two greatest choral works: the
Requiem and the Great Mass in c.  His death cut off the Requiem.  However,
scholars have far less of an idea why he left the mass unfinished.  He
had begun it as a celebration of his marriage.  He vowed to write a mass
to be performed a year after he and Constanze tied the knot.  He did
indeed perform the mass a year later in Salzburg (Constanze was one of
the soloists), but missing the sections still missing.

As I say, scholars have little idea why Mozart never composed the complete
deal, although they gladly speculate.  I might as well join them.  I see
three promising lines.

First, Mozart made his living through music.  Nobody commissioned the
mass, nor did Mozart then have a job that required him to write one.  He
needed to bring in money, and the mass fell by the wayside.  The easiest
promises to break are the ones you make to yourself.

On the other hand, Mozart's first-born, Raimund Leopold, had died in
infancy.  It may well have been that Mozart began to associate the mass,
conceived as a celebration of his marriage, with his dead son and thus
lost the drive to finish it.

Third, the mass represents a super-human leap in the capacity of Mozart's
style.  Someone once defined two kinds of genius: the person who is like
us, only ten times better; the person whom nobody could predict.  In the
mass, Mozart becomes the second - in effect, a magician.  Every movement
is conceived at a level both beyond and in essence, in terms not only
of the sacred music of the day but also of Mozart's previous output.
Haydn, no slouch himself and out of his magnificence of character, called
Mozart the greatest musician he knew, and you can see what he means.
Perhaps, however, Mozart could think of nothing up to what he had already
written.  It's as if, after levitating, he resorted to the old wheeze
of pulling a quarter out of your ear.  I don't really believe in Mozart's
lack, but the loss of inspiration in the middle of a large work happens
more frequently than you might suspect.  At any rate, it's a possibility.

The fun scholars have had speculating pales in comparison with the fun
people have had "completing" Mozart's mass.  Some have "improved" the
mass, as they have the Requiem, to a fare-thee-well.  With the Requiem,
I see no completion significantly better than poor old Sussmayr's, who
for all his faults remains the only completer who actually talked to the
composer himself.  Levin's edition of the Requiem, for example, strikes
me as more suave and far less bold.  The mass has been slightly more
fortunate, in that the additions have tended not to take away from the
whole, even though they haven't made it any better.  Levin takes a
promising approach.  He not only adapts movements from the obscurer
Mozart (a stunning tenor aria from Davide penitente, for example, shows
up in the mass's Agnus Dei), but composes sections based on Mozart
material (the Credo's "Et vitam venturi" is a quick fugue based on a
secondary imitative theme in the Kyrie).  Levin's original contributions
are fine, even brilliant, but they're not really Mozart.  They have
Mozart's boldness, but not his freedom.  Mozart gets your jaw to drop
in music that sounds completely natural.  You hear ingenuity but also
contrivance in Levin.  Mozart's music breathes; Levin's grits its teeth.
Nevertheless, Levin's performing version strikes me as the best of the
lot.

Still, the incomplete original remains a formidable piece. I'm not sure
that it really needs completion.  McCreesh makes a very good case for
Mozart as he is wrote.  McCreesh can always whip up excitement.  Indeed,
his account may strike some as rather driven.  The reading pretty much
whips along.  The colors are light and bright.  Those who prefer solemnity
and pomp would do well to give this account a miss. As for me, I tend
to like it.  At least it moves.  Even so, McCreesh doesn't skip over
largos and adagios.  But it's what I would call a chamber account -
smaller in scale than one normally expects of the grand chorus-and-orchestra
repertoire.  McCreesh's point of view focuses the listener's attention
on the quality of Mozart's ideas, rather than the sonic spectacle of
large forces, and Mozart can take it.  The Gabrieli Players attack cleanly
and manage to ride the musical line lightly.  McCreesh's choir, the
Gabrieli Consort, isn't always so lucky.  Their light, clear tone matches
that of the players, but they run into problems with some of McCreesh's
tempi.  The quick runs in the "Gloria in excelsis Deo" - very quick
indeed under McCreesh - become smears in the lower voices, particularly
in the basses.  It's not terrible, since instruments double the choral
writing, but you do notice it, particularly because the women have no
difficulty knocking out the notes.

In general, McCreesh has better luck with the women than with the men,
even down to the soloists.  Mozart wrote for a solo quartet of two
sopranos, tenor, and bass - fairly unusual.  Indeed, offhand, I don't
know of another instance of this kind of layout.  Camilla Tilling and
Sarah Connolly possess light, extremely flexible voices, perfect for
the scale of the performance.  Timothy Robinson's tenor is also light,
although not quite as flexible.  One also hears a slight reediness in
the tone.  Bass Neal Davies will never sing Boris.  Again, the voice
lacks weight.  Unfortunately, he also has a vibrato wider than Dick
Cheney's creepy grimace.  It gets so bad, he doesn't always define the
pitch, and he doesn't always blend in with the rest of the quartet. 
One tends to tune him out and listen for the doubling instruments.  In
his case, it seems like a matter of trying too hard to "sell" his music.
I suspect all he need do is step back just a little.

At least McCreesh has a point of view.  No one would call me Helmuth
Rilling's biggest fan.  After many disappointments, I managed to avoid
his recordings, unless his was the only one available of a particular
piece.  In my collection, these tended to be the more obscure Bach
cantatas, replaced at the speed of light as soon as someone else turned
to the same work.  Rilling simply bores me, although I admit his technical
mastery, particularly with a chorus.  Rilling works with larger forces
- a choir of nearly fifty, as opposed to McCreesh's thirty stalwarts,
and the orchestra is correspondingly larger as well.  The chorus sails
through the difficulties of the score with aplomb.  The runs that the
Gabrieli Consort smeared come out here clean, each note distinguishable,
and with bigger forces, yet.  This is possible perhaps only by "micromanaging"
each note in the run, determining when to snip a short note even shorter,
where exactly within a sixteenth-note's duration to place a consonant,
and so on.  The orchestral sound is positively sumptuous.  His soloists
have more beautiful voices than the McCreesh quartet.  Indeed, they are
opera caliber.  Yet, Rilling's account is a bit like riding in a Rolls.
You make the journey in great comfort, but also within layers of insulation.
You may occasionally glance out the window, but the outside remains at
a great remove. The most interesting thing about Rilling's performance
is its bland technical perfection, but it barely lives.  There's almost
no shape to it.  Most of it comes from the soloists.  Incidentally, I
strongly disagree with Rilling's choice of Juliane Banse as the second
soprano.  Banse is really more of a mezzo, and thus Rilling loses the
originality of Mozart's quartet.

In general, large sections of Rilling's performance simply go by,
relatively speaking; after all, it is still Mozart at his best.  But
music so strong, so full of startling detail, deserves better.  It's
easy to imagine a more incisive approach.

Nevertheless, this is at present the only recording of Levin's completion,
and Levin's really is by far the best out there.  Levin tries to put in
as much real Mozart as possible and keeps his own composing to a minimum.
There have been versions which have done things like recycling the Kyrie
as the Agnus Dei - essentially the strategy of the Requiem, although the
composer himself may have sanctioned that - but Levin's knowledge of
Mozart runs so wide and so deep that he comes up with choices at the
very least interesting and at best able to bear comparison to the torso
of the mass Mozart left.  The "Crucifixus," based on a double fugue
Mozart left in manuscript, is a special joy.

As filler for the missing sections of the mass, McCreesh gives us
two concert arias, "Scena di Berenice" by Haydn and "Ah!  perfido" by
Beethoven, both written within a few years of one another.  Compared to
the Mozart, they sound as quaint as Rudy Vallee's megaphone warblings.
The genre of concert aria had a long fashion.  However, composers like
Brahms transformed it to an adjunct of lyric poetry in works like the
Alt-Rhapsodie.  The Haydn and Beethoven examples, along with a few by
Mozart and Mendelssohn, represent the best of the old genre, and they
are quite fine.  The form breaks down into recitative and aria, with the
recitative giving the singer the opportunity to show dramatic range and
the aria vocal agility or legato line.  Many concert arias become so
formulaic, that you can pretty much predict the music - definitely not
the case with Haydn and Beethoven, who mostly pull off one musical
surprise after another, even while working within certain worn operatic
conventions.  Dramatically, however, they don't really convince, as
Mozart does in his arias.  Neither Haydn nor Beethoven, despite the
operas they wrote, are really musical dramatists.  Compare "Ah!  perfido,"
for example, to the Queen of the Night's aria from Magic Flute.  Beethoven
gives us style.  Mozart, on the other hand, delivers raw emotion.  We
don't have to "think ourselves back" into older forms in order to feel
the aria's punch.  In both the "Scena" and "Ah!  perfido," we see not
the abandoned woman, but a porcelain figurine.

I can't recommend at this point one recording over another.  The McCreesh
is far and away the better performance, but the Levin completion exercises
a strong fascination.  You may want both.

Steve Schwartz

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