United Kingdom Mozart: Rowan Pierce (soprano), Katie Bray (mezzo-soprano), James Oxley (tenor), Giles Underwood (bass), Choir of Merton College, Merton College Girl Choristers, Florilegium / Benjamin Nicholas (conductor). Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford 8.4.2022. (CR)
Mozart – Symphony No.36 in C major, K425 ‘Linz’; Mass in C minor, K427
Given as part of Merton College’s annual weekend Passiontide festival, Mozart’s finest setting (sometimes called the ‘Great’) of the standard Mass – albeit incomplete, like the Requiem – does not explicitly or specifically have anything to do with that liturgical season or indeed any other, but its solemnity is apt for the week preceding Easter. Rather, Mozart apparently composed it in keeping with a promise that he would do so, and perform it, when he brought his new wife, Constanze, to Salzburg to meet his father and sister for the first time in 1783. Artistically it also clearly stems from a period in Mozart’s musical career when he was engaged with studying the forms and style of his Baroque predecessors such as Bach and Handel, and it is intriguing that, for all the inspiration he drew from that, a number of his compositional exercises in this vein at that period remained incomplete. In any case, given that personal, and more secular background, and the Mass’s considerable dimensions, it looks ahead to Beethoven’s Missa solemnis as a work of private significance for its composer, but with a more universal outlook as its ultimate spiritual intention, instead of a merely functional explication of Catholic liturgy or doctrine.
Benjamin Nicholas’s performance of the Mass with Florilegium was appealingly lithe and steady, as announced by its gentle tread at the opening and generally maintaining Classical balance thereafter rather than excitable Baroque contrasts. However, the entry of the trombones here, sonorously cutting through the clustering texture of the Kyrie, drew a clear parallel with the start of the Requiem; and that purposeful stride, along with wailing oboes, perhaps put one in mind of the opening of Bach’s St John Passion, implying more urgency and weight. The youthful voices of the Merton College Choir and the Girl Choristers brought a light-grained clarity to this movement and the homophonic choral sequences of the ‘Qui tollis’, but they were also resounding and emphatic in the Gloria’s opening section, the Sanctus, and the two appearances of the ‘Hosanna in excelsis’. Clarity was welcome in the contrapuntal complexity of the fugue on ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ but the notes of the theme were just a little too drawn out, mitigating against the development of tension and drama in this concluding section of the Gloria.
In the context of the exquisite ‘Christe eleison’, Rowan Pierce’s steely edged vibrato was a touch too powerful in the Sheldonian Theatre – Christopher Wren’s early work which otherwise suited reasonably well Mozart’s Baroque-inspired setting. But in the other solo vocal numbers it certainly instilled some theatrical drama into the performance, which was undoubtedly intended by Mozart, ever a man of the opera house, having recently composed The Abduction from the Seraglio and engaged with two more (destined to remain as fragments) when he wrote the Mass. Katie Bray was supple in the ‘Laudamus te’, James Oxley provided a measured vocal support to the two sopranos for the ‘Quoniam tu solus’, and all four soloists were well co-ordinated for the Benedictus. It was a pity that the ‘Et incarnatus es’ was a little too brisk, such that Pierce’s fine dialogue with Ashley Solomon and Leo Duarte’s solos flute and oboe respectively became somewhat harried.
The joyous ‘Linz’ Symphony does not, of course, relate to any religious context – never mind the gravity of Passiontide – but it was composed at great speed in November 1783 when Mozart visited that city on his way back to Vienna from Salzburg where the Mass had been performed. As a concert was announced, for which he had no music to hand, he promptly composed the symphony so as not to disappoint his audience.
Nicholas’s reading was fairly broad – perhaps a touch more so than we are used to hearing even with modern symphony orchestras these days. But Florilegium were translucent and airy in sound, sustaining a poised character throughout, that radiated the essentially Mozartian quality of sublime contentment. Antiphonally placed strings and their lack of vibrato brought an aural sheen to the texture which was bright for the Andante, such that the brief discursions into the minor key were like the quick passing of clouds across the sun on a clear day, but rightly no more troubling than that.
Breadth meant a due degree of symphonic grandeur for the first movement, if not quite perhaps the ‘spirituoso’ of Mozart’s qualifying marking. Nevertheless, there was engaging lift for the Menuetto, its triple meter executed just about as one to a bar here. The Presto finale set off at a sufficiently fast – but not rushed – pace, although a lighter, more mischievous way with its initial statement would have created a greater degree of contrast with what followed, as well as a more suitable sense of Haydnesque humour. Slightly scrappy violins in their scampering semiquaver passages fortunately did not obstruct proceedings, leading to an emphatic flourish on the final dotted figure. In general, subtlety and refinement were the overriding traits here of both the symphony and Mass.