Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots is essentially a religious allegory, musing upon the necessity for the Christian soul to observe wholeheartedly the First Commandment (“love the Lord your God”) if it is to attain salvation. Objectively the music may not be very noteworthy in itself, but it is remarkable that Mozart was eleven when he composed it. It is surely of interest, then, as his first attempt at musical drama and it already demonstrates his ability to delineate human character and action in music, which was to find supreme expression in the operas to come. With plenty of scope for word-painting too, the work is at least as accomplished as any other comparable oratorio or non-liturgical religious work not set exclusively for choir, of the second half of the 18th-century (for example, Haydn’s Il Ritorno di Tobia or C. P. E. Bach’s Die Israeliten in der Wüste).
Ian Page leads a lively account of the score, which is generally ebullient and colourful even as, for example, the Spirit of Worldliness depicts to the Christian a dour picture of Christianity and its moral claims, in ‘Schildre einen Philosophen’, which Sophie Bevan sings ravishingly. She is almost coquettish in her other aria, ‘Hat der Schöpfer dieses Leben’, where her voluptuous tone in its coloratura
passages characterises the worldly pleasures she recommends to the Christian.
The other soloists are well cast, too. Andrew Kennedy’s tenor, as Christianity, bears the weight of wisdom and tutelary anxiety, in contrast to which his charge, Allan Clayton, as a half-hearted Christian, brings a tone of youthful inexperience and callowness. Cora Burggraaf, as Divine Justice, sounds suitably upright, even haughty, although her exhortations to Christian to “awake” in ‘Erwache, fauler Knecht’ have an almost boyish, ethereal quality. Sarah Fox’s Divine Mercy is dependable, and she and Burggraaf blend well in their assurances to Christianity in the final Trio that they will help him to win the soul of Christian – the two further parts of the drama, composed by Michael Haydn and Anton Adlgasser, are now lost however.
The recording exudes a sense of theatricality and enacted drama, which is not necessarily incompatible with the impression also of a devotional performance, given the resonant, church-like ambience of Blackheath Halls. The spread chords of the double bass continuo – often sounding like a viola da gamba – add an additional note of solemnity, akin to the recitatives of J. S. Bach’s Passions. Although commissioned as part of Salzburg’s tradition of spiritually elevating Lenten dramas, it is questionable, however, whether that was exactly the sort of effect envisaged by the religious authorities, as Die Schuldigkeit was originally performed in the Knight’s Hall of the Archbishop’s Palace – that is, not in an ecclesiastical setting.
At any rate, a theatrical dimension, and the use of period instruments, distinguishes this recording from Neville Marriner’s, which is given straight, as it were, and on modern instruments. These considerations will therefore dictate listeners’ preferences, though Marriner secures better tuning (especially from the horns and trombone) and a more thoughtful, less impulsive performance overall – but, some might say, staid compared to Page’s interpretation.
The second CD includes a short ‘making of’ documentary. Various performers reflect upon the score, and if they do not offer any particularly novel insights, they do reveal a palpable enthusiasm for the music which is evident in the recorded performance.