Mostly Mozart Festival (3) – Mozart’s Unsolemn Solemn Vespers

United StatesUnited States Mostly Mozart Festival (3) Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer (Conductor), Lucy Crowe (Soprano), Soloists of the Concert Chorale of New York, James Bagwell (Director), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 9.8.2011 (SSM)

Ave verum corpus, K.618
Symphony No.41 in C major, K.551 (“Jupiter”)
Vesperae solennes de confessore, K.339

 In a brief conversation with Maestro Iván Fischer, he talked about how he had been aiming for a “unified,” seamless production the other night of Don Giovanni. I facetiously suggested he could cut out the intermission which to me was more like an interruption. In the Playbill to last night’s performance he states, “I am interested in an organic unity of performance especially in the case of operas….” This philosophy was certainly carried over to the program he conducted last night. Where normally there would be a silent break (except for the ubiquitous coughers) between pieces or audience applause, Fischer had the organist play an improvisatory or improvisatory-style interlude. This made the brief sacred choral work, Ave verum corpus, seem like an other-worldly overture to the profane last symphony of Mozart. The work itself is a small gem, under five minutes, and in its simplicity could be mistaken for a Christmas carol. A very late work, it has that shimmering, ethereal aura also heard in the three adjacent Köchel numbers: the works for glass armonica. The transcendent Clarinet Concerto was also composed in the same month. In Mr. Fischer’s hands, the motet glowed.

In the Vesperae solennes de confessore, plainchant antiphons sung by a tenor in the chorus were interpolated between most of the movements. The effect of this was to both unify and to separate the parts of the whole. The musical question as to whether to fill the gaps between sections of the Vespers, as is done in the full liturgical service, goes back at least as far as Monteverdi. When Andrew Parrott recorded Monteverdi’s “Vespers of 1610” with both plainchant and instrumental interludes, it came as a surprise to some and as a revelation to others. In fact, this radical version (also with only voice per part) probably did come closer to how it sounded when it was actually performed as part of the Vespers liturgical service. On one side we have the liturgical tradition saying  that the composers, de facto, expected it to be performed with fillers and on the other hand there were those who felt these interludes had the effect of breaking up the work by adding music that, as far as we know, neither composer intended to be added.

For a work that is supposed to be solemn, there is little solemn about this Vespers. Most of the movements are marked Allegro or Allegro Vivace. Scored for strings, trombone, tympani and bassoon (ad libium), this sacred work was performed brightly and with much élan by both orchestra and chorus. The Laudate pueri (no tempo) demonstrated how easy it was for Mozart to switch musical styles, from strictly Classical to High Baroque. This contrapuntal movement became the Kyrie of Mozart’s final work, his Requiem. The high point of the Vespers, as well as the program, was the sublime Laudate Dominum. Along with the Et incarnatus est from the “Mass in C minor,” this aria, although not  requiring a coloratura range, reveals its inner luminosity with a voice a little less white than Lucy Crowe’s. Nonetheless, it would take a heart of stone not to be moved to tears, listening to this lustrous nonpareil.

Fischer conducted a  crisp, festive  performance of the “Jupiter Symphony,” emphasizing the brass and tympani. Tempos were moderate. His ability to bring out thematic material, particularly from the lower strings was exemplary. It would have been interesting to have heard this work played by his own Budapest Festival Orchestra which played so brilliantly in Don Giovanni, but certainly the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra could hold its own and did so in last night’s performance.

Stan Metzger

 This series continues at Lincoln Center through August 27. See Mostly Mozart Festival.