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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Mass in C major Coronation, K317 (1779) [26.02]
Ileana Cotrubas (soprano), Helen Watts (alto), Robert Tear tenor), John Shirley-Quirk (bass)
Schola Cantorum of Oxford
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner
Vesperae solennes de confessore, K339 (1779) [28.08]
Felicity Palmer (soprano), Margaret Cable (alto), Philip Langridge (tenor), Stephen Roberts (bass)
Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge
Wren Orchestra/George Guest
Exultate, jubilate, K165 (1773) [15.15]
Erna Spoorenberg (soprano)
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner
Rec. 1966 (K165), 1971 (K317), 1979 (K339)
DECCA ELOQUENCE 470 166 2 [65.44]

 

Mozart’s achievement in sacred vocal music was at its most significant during his years at Salzburg. After 1781 and his new career as a freelance musician in Vienna, opportunities were restricted by the recurring feud between church and state.

This Decca reissue gathers together three of the best of Mozart’s vocal works, all captured in vibrant performances and recordings from the 1970s. The earliest of these pieces is the celebrated Exultate jubilate of 1773. During his Italian tour of that year he composed it for the eminent castrato Venanzio Rauzzini. The anonymous text expresses the joy of a soul freed from uncertainty by the relief of offering prayers to the Virgin Mary. The orchestral contribution sensitively supports the vocal line and enhances the musical characterisation, while the four sections are complementary in design. In the light of this provenance it is no surprise that the success of the work in performance centres on the role of the soprano soloist, and it is generally well served as far as recordings are concerned. The return of this recording with Erna Spoorenberg reminds us of the nature of her talent, which was ideally suited to this repertoire. Marriner and his orchestra accompany her most sensitively, and the tempi are well chosen. The recorded sound is accurate and pleasing, and really the only drawback is that this is the least strong piece on the disc, so continued listening through the whole contents is not to be encouraged.

The so-called Coronation Mass of 1779 also shows the young Mozart at the top of his creative form. This is the finest of all Mozart's Salzburg Masses. The memorable title came later, however, when Antonio Salieri directed a performance at Prague in 1791, on the occasion of the Emperor Leopold II being crowned as King of Bohemia. (Mozart wrote the opera La clemenza di Tito for these same celebrations.) The Mass was originally written, it seems, for a special festive service commemorating a miraculous image of the Virgin in the church of Maria Plain above Salzburg.

The festive character comes across from first movement to last. Perhaps the tempi in the opening movement are a little relaxed, but at least this suits the text, which translates as ‘Lord have mercy on me’. There is a well-crafted balance between solo and ensemble, and the team of soloists is distinguished. The soprano Ileana Cotrubas is perhaps the pick of them, but the others are excellent too. Throughout the balance between activity and poetry is skilfully drawn, and with Marriner directing the Academy it is no surprise that the orchestral playing is distinguished.

The remaining work, the Solemn Vespers, is the most substantial of the three. It is also the least widely known, but it can lay claim to being the strongest. The settings are of standard Psalm texts, each of them standing in its own right rather than as a smaller aspect of a larger picture. The performance, featuring excellent soloists with the late-lamented Wren Orchestra under George Guest, has abundant vitality if not quite the sophistication of the Marriner performances.

The sound is splendid, as in the other performances, and this reissue has brought the music to vibrant life. In a way the title Solemn Vespers is misleading, since the music is so vital. In fact the point is clear from the very opening bars, which soon generate that momentum that is a typical feature of the classical style. Religious texts can be dramatic, of course, and there is a setting of the famous text of the Dixit Dominus that encouraged the young Handel to write one of his earliest masterpieces.

There are contrasts in abundance in this rich score, both of texture, pace and expression. George Guest was an experienced choral conductor, whose reputation in the classical repertoire still goes before him. Hearing this performance it is not hard to see why, and this makes a most pleasing compilation for the discerning collector, even if the accompanying booklet is thin on notes and non-existent on texts and translations.

Terry Barfoot



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