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Johann Simon MAYR (1763-1845
Mass in E flat major (1843) [86.86]
Dorota Szczepańska (soprano)
Johanna Krödel (alto)
Markus Schäfer (tenor)
Daniel Ochoa (bass)
Simon Mayr Chorus
Concerto de Bassus/Franz Hauk
rec. 2018, Asamkirche Maria de Victoria, Ingolstadt, Germany
NAXOS 8.574057 [86.46]

This recording is an oddity in many ways, though not without interest. It is not, I think, a neglected masterpiece, and repeated listening has led me to find it much less than the sum of its parts. If one wanted a pleasant hour and a half of quite attractive, if not ultimately especially memorable, tunes, in committed performances, then it is easy to be satisfied. But the work fails as a Mass setting. To be sure, it falls into the category of a messa concertata, in the Italian tradition, made up of separate numbers, but it does so at the cost of the meaning of some of the text.
Mayr’s Mass, as we have it, is incomplete, and the recording is of a reconstruction by the conductor, Franz Hauk, and Manfred Hößl. We hear the fullness of a rich orchestration, lovingly developed, and a gift for balancing different voices: Mayr had a keen ear.

These gifts are not surprising, given Mayr’s whole career. He composed almost 70 operas, largely ignored, although there are some recordings, and Naxos have announced the forthcoming issue of an opera, Le Due Duchesse, set in the Middle Ages, also conducted by Hauk. This, like the present recording, is a World Premiere. That the Mass should be operatic appears no surprise. Less clear is its purpose. Fragments of earlier Masses exist, and various church works, conducted by Hauk, have been released by Naxos, all conducted by Hauk. Mayr was born in the very Catholic Bavaria, studied Theology at the University of Ingolstadt, and, from 1802 until his death, was based in Bergamo as maestro di cappelle at the cathedral in Bergamo and at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, where he and his pupil Donizetti are buried. But whether this Mass was intended for a specific occasion, or composed for some personal reason, we cannot tell.

Its proportions seem to rule out the setting as having liturgical purpose. Proportions are curious. Credo and Kyrie last roughly 12 minutes apiece, Sanctus and Benedictus are over in no time (the former in a minute and a half), Agnus Dei lasts a shade over three minutes; and the Gloria goes on, and on, and on, for almost 54 minutes. Of course, there is precedent for Gloria-dominated masses, not only in Bach’s Lutheran Masses, but also in Rossini’s Missa di Gloria. However, in liturgical terms, this imbalance makes little sense.

There is an interesting sign that the intention of the Mass is non-liturgical. In the Credo, a moment of profound significance is the phrase, ‘et homo factus est’ (‘and became man’). Traditionally the congregation would kneel or genuflect at this single and solemn statement. But here, though there is some solemnity, and suitable devotion in the string-dominated orchestra, the tenor sings the phrase, and with the other soloists moves into the passion and death: ‘et sepultus est’, before bouncing back into a repeat of ‘et incarnatus’, and so on: a conventional operatic treatment. The result diminishes the following brass-driven and quicker ‘et resurrexit’. A comparison with the treatment by of these phrases by Bach or Beethoven is more than telling: it puts Mayr’s achievement in its proper context, somewhere below true greatness, for all its pleasures.

And yet, as a listening experience, there is much to enjoy. Performances are committed, with special praise for the tenor, Markus Schäfer, though no-one lets the side down. Nothing lingers and there is a sense of energy and momentum. It is a valuable addition to the discography of 19th Century masses.

Praise to Naxos, for full notes and for including in the booklet the very familiar words and translation: too often record companies have made false economies by expecting the listener to have recourse to a website.

Michael Wilkinson

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