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CD Review

Wolfgang Mozart

Great Mass in C minor

  • Mass in C minor, KV427 (417a) - new version by Robert D. Levin
Diana Damrau, soprano I
Juliane Banse, soprano II
Lothar Odinius, tenor
Markus Marquardt, bass
Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart
Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Helmut Rilling
Hänssler Classic CD98.227 76:33
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Camilla Tilling, soprano I
Sarah Connolly, soprano II
Timothy Robinson, tenor
Neal Davies, bass
Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh
Archiv 4775744 73:49
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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 minor. 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 Süssmayr'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.

Copyright © 2007, Steve Schwartz