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Kolner Kammerchor / Collegium Cartusianum Peter Neuman
Virgin Classics VB5 617692 8 Five CDs
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This boxed set of five compact discs presents twelve of the seventeen settings of the Mass composed (or attributed to?) Mozart, together with the Ave Verum Corpus, spanning the 22 years from boyhood (1769) to his death (1791). They provide a fascinating sequence illustrating Mozart's development as a composer of choral music. The full set re-arranged into chronological order is:
K 65 Missa Brevis D minor (1769) 13 minutes
K 66 "Dominicus" C major (1769) 40 minutes
K139 "Waisenhaus" C minor (1771-72)
(or K47a 1768?)
38 minutes
K167 "Holy Trinity" C major (1773) 29 minutes
K220 "Sparrow" C major (1775) 15 minutes
K257 "Credo" C major (1776) 27 minutes
K258 "Piccolomini"  
C major (1776) 15 minutes
K259 "Organ solo" C major (1776) 14 minutes
K317 "Coronation" C major (1779) 25 minutes
K337 Missa Solemnis C major (1780) 21 minutes
K427 "Great" C minor (1782-83) 53 minutes, unfinished
K618 Ave Verum Corpus D major (1791) 3 minutes
K626 Requiem D minor (1791) 48 minutes

The settings not included in this collection are:
K49 G major (1768)
K192 F major (1774)
K194 D major (1774)
K262 C major (1776)
K275 B flat major (1776)

This listing is the one most generally agreed by Mozart scholars as to authenticity and date of composition. However, some uncertainties attach to the first three of the recorded settings. K65 and K66 appear to be youthful works whose authenticity has been doubted. (They are omitted altogether from Maynard Solomon's listing in Mozart - A Life, Hutchinson, 1995.) K65 is a terse missa brevis with very short ritornelli; it uses orchestration of just two violins, bass and organ without vocal soloists. It could be assumed that the 13-year-old boy was simply executing a commission following the mandatory conventions of the time. However, closer study shows that the writing already exhibits embryonically those traits which characterise Mozart's mature works: some innovative elements of independemce of the vocal and instrumental lines are evident, as are the first stirrings of durchkomponiert writing within individual movements and of coherence between them. For example the Benedictus quotes thematic material from both the preceding Sanctus and following Agnus Dei.

The Dominicus mass, K66, (also 1769) is on an altogether different scale, forming a 40-minute missa solemnis with numerous sub-sections of the Gloria and Credo, and is scored for a full string orchestra with trumpets and timpani. It was revised in 1776 with the addition of oboes and horns. (The revised version is the one used in this recording.) There is much "operatic" flowery writing, almost baroque in style, for the soloists and the development of fugues in the highly polyphonic choral parts. We can conclude that Mozart was already seeking to spread his wings and develop a style influenced by Johann Adolf Hesse (1699-1783).

There is uncertainty as to the date of composition of the Waisenhaus missa solemnis, K 139. Its name is derived from its supposedly being written for the consecration of the Orphanage Church in Vienna in 1768. If this is true, then it would pre-date not only K65 and K66 but also the missa brevis in G major, K49; thus it is sometimes listed as K47a. This is the contention accepted as definitive in the accompanying notes to these CDs by Michel Roubinet. However, this reviewer finds the conclusion of Karl Geiringer the more convincing (in The Mozart Companion, ed. Robbins Landon & Donald Mitchell, Faber, 1956): It is simply too mature a work to be the first mass setting Mozart ever wrote. It is surely the work of a 15-year-old adolescent (precocious enough!) rather than that of a 12-year-old child. We must conclude that the true "Waisenhaus" mass of 1768 has been lost. The work is scored for a full orchestra including oboes, four trumpets, three trombones and timpani. Whilst it is two minutes shorter duration than the Dominicus mass, it is even more massive in style and impact with contrasting sections exhibiting by turns "Neapolitan" brilliance, calm serenity and dark sturm und drang (listen carefully to the Crucifixus !).

The next five masses come from the nine which Mozart wrote for the Salzburg archiepiscopal court between 1773 and 1776. At the behest of his patron, they are all missae breves (30 minutes maximum) and are all in C major. These works show Mozart (now aged 17-20 years) achieving his mature style - the close interdependence of vocal and instrumental thematic material (contrasting but integrated) together with that natural combination of contrapuntal and homophonic writing which we recognise as his unique genius.

The period 1777 to 1781 saw Mozart on his numerous tours to Munich, Mannheim and Paris, in which church music did not feature; rather he was occupied with numerous piano sonatas, chamber works, the operas Die Entfuhrung and Idomineo, and the "Paris" and "Haffner" symphonies. During this period he came home to roost in Salzburg for the year 1779-80, when he composed the Coronation mass and the Missa Solemnis (yes, both in C major), K317 and K337. These masses are short in duration, but rich in invention, with gloriously cantbile singability, and are firm favourites of choral societies to this day. In particular the two settings of Agnus Dei are based on themes which subsequently re-appeared in those sublime arias Porgi amor and Dove sono in "The Marriage of Figaro".

For the final decade of his life (1781-91) Mozart was permanently resident in Vienna and wrote fewer choral works than during his Salzburg period. Nevertheless his two greatest masses belong to this period: the Great C minor, K427, (1782-83) and that Requiem, K626, (1791). Both remained uncompleted at his death, but even so represent monumental grandeur and emotional depths of transcendental transport scarcely achieved in choral music before or since. The Great C minor may have represented for Mozart what the B minor Mass represented for J S Bach. It was not written to a specific commission but was perhaps meant by Mozart to celebrate the peak of his composing achievement in an act of personal devotion. Certainly the soprano arias Laudamus Te and Et Incarnatus were specifically intended for his wife Constanze. It may be that this mass was never performed in Mozart's lifetime, though some of the music was reworked for the oratorio Davidde Penitente, K469.

The Requiem Mass, K626, (1791), the macabre circumstances of its commissioning and composition, and its posthumous completion by Sussmayer have occasioned a truly vast literature (e.g. Robbins Landon's Mozart's Last Year, Thames & Hudson, 1989) and further comment here is superfluous. Suffice it to say this sublime work fully deserves it regard as one the greatest and most beautiful works in the whole of music.

These performances under Peter Neuman are of consistent quality, with an excellent balance of orchestra, soloists and chorus. Thirteen soloists contribute to one or more of the works. Barbara Schlick and Franz-Josef Selig give splendid renderings of the most demanding soprano and bass parts. The allegro tempi are generally brisk but never rushed, with the slow movements taken at an appropriately lyrical pace. The Et Incarnatus in the Great C Minor mass is taken Adagio rather than Andante as marked, but Barbara Schlick's sonorously sustained singing ensures its coherence.

The accompanying notes, 900 words, by Michel Roubinet give useful background information on some of the music- but this is scarcely adequate given that 13 works on five CDs are involved. Regrettably there is no information about the conductor, soloists, choir or orchestra. Given the excellence of performances and technical quality of recording, it is a pity the ancillary information is so skimpy.

These CDs deserve a place in the collection of anyone who relishes having a comprehensive (almost) set of the Mozart masses, and can be recommended for libraries as a valuable reference set. It serves to place the well-known and popular works in context alongside those lesser-known, but worthy of our careful attention.

Humphrey Smith

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