It is one music’s many tragedies that Mozart left unfinished
both of his two grandest and greatest choral pieces – the Requiem in
D minor, K626, and this Mass in C minor, K427. Of course we know why
in the case of the former: but we’re not so sure in the case of the
latter. It was written soon after falling out with the Archbishop of
Salzburg (and so, inevitably, with his father) and falling in love with
(and marrying) Constanze Weber. Mozart – newly settled in Vienna, without
a regular income – would have been easily distracted from finishing
a score which (as an act of thanksgiving to God, or perhaps a reconciliatory
offering to his father) was unlikely to be a big earner for him.
I have often wondered whether history’s verdict on
the C minor Mass was in fact secretly shared by its composer. Namely
that, containing as it does a quite extraordinary diversity of music,
the whole never quite manages to add up to the sum of its parts. Don’t
misunderstand me: the score includes some of Mozart’s most wonderful
music, and there isn’t a weak moment from beginning to end. But consider
the range of music on offer here! The piece embraces Masonic solemnity
(the dark opening chorus, with its forbidding trombones and soulful
soprano solo); a childlike operatic happiness (the aria Laudamus
Te, sung divinely in this recording by Barbara Bonney); immaculately
ornate concerto-like ensembles such as the soprano-flute-oboe-bassoon
quartet, Et incarnatus est; a massive chaconne of frightening
severity on a descending (Dido-like) chromatic bass – the Qui Tollis;
the majestic baroque antiphony of the bi-choral Hosannas; and
the truly archaic academic counterpoint of Cum Sancto Spiritu.
No wonder, you might say, that Mozart seemed unsure of how to pick up
the pieces once he’d lost the impetus.
Abbado’s performance is wide-ranging, delivering most
satisfyingly on every aspect of this hugely varied score. He has an
impressively unified team at his disposal, with a superb quartet of
singers: in fact Bonney and Auger are as well matched as you could reasonably
expect to find in the impossibly demanding Domine Deus duet.
The Berlin Radio Choir are a smallish, professional group, and are partnered
by (or so it sounds to me) a chamber-sized Berlin Philharmonic. So there’s
a lot of detail to be heard: those racing semiquavers in the trombones
(in the Gloria in Excelsis) or oboes (the Credo) are not
drowned – as often they are – by an overlarge chorus. Nothing is overlooked,
and nothing is overstated.
It may be that some more recent rivals (I’m thinking
particularly of Gardiner or Christie here) have probed even more deeply,
bringing out still more of the drama and expressive intensity of this
music. However, Abbado’s is a safe performance, and makes a safe recommendation.
But at less than 53 minutes (a symphony of unused minutes and seconds…)
a fill-up – the rule rather than the exception these days on budget-priced
reissues – would have been nice.
Peter J Lawson