Mozart’s C minor Mass Completed

Thamos, King of Egypt – Incidental Music, K345 [selections]
Mass in C minor, K427 [reconstructed by Philip Wilby for the New Novello Choral Edition; London premiere]

Helen Meyerhoff (soprano)
Bernadette Lord (soprano)
Julian Stocker (tenor)
Giles Underwood (baritone)

London Concert Choir

Mark Forkgen

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 10 July, 2006
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Last week saw the publication of a print of the only photograph of Constanze, Mozart’s widow (née Weber). Taken in 1840 when Constanze was 78, it was found recently in archives in the South German town of Altötting. (She is identified as sitting bottom-left.) By coincidence, a few days later brought the London premiere of a ‘completed’ version by the musicologist Peter Wilby of the Mass that Mozart vowed to his father he would write if he could marry Constanze. With Leopold’s reluctant approval the marriage took place in 1782 and the Mass was written, receiving its first performance in 1783 with Constanze singing the first-soprano part.

All the indications are that Mozart intended a full six-movement ‘concert’ Mass on a much grander scale than his previous ‘liturgical’ Masses for Salzburg, and including a concluding ‘Agnus Dei’. However, as it has come down to us (and as previously performed) the Mass incomplete. For example, besides the ‘missing’ ‘Agnus Dei’, the ‘Credo’ is incomplete, lacking the ‘Crucifixus’, ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctam’ and ‘Et unam Sanctam’, as well as parts for trumpets, trombones and timpani.

Philip Wilby’s solution is best described as ‘Mostly Mozart’. Two years after setting the Mass in C minor, Mozart composed an Oratorio, “Davidde Penitente”, taking all the material from K427. Wilby has reconstructed the missing sections, particularly the ‘Credo’, using this material, and has composed a new ‘Agnus Dei’ using material from the opening ‘Kyrie eleison’ topped off with the imposing fugue ‘Cum Spiritu Sanctu’ which originally ended the ‘Gloria’, now brought back as ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’.

In Wilby’s favour, the resulting work seldom sounds like anything other than Mozart – hardly surprising since for the most part his solution has been to plug the gaps with Mozart – and the addition of brass and timpani at the start of the ‘Credo’ certainly sounds absolutely right.

Less convincing is the final ‘Agnus Dei’. Musicologically I am sure Wilby is right to bring the work to a rousing conclusion using the ‘Cum Spiritu Sanctu’ fugue, or at least Mozart himself would probably have done something like this. However, musically – having staged a wonderful coup de théâtre at the start of the ‘new’ ‘Agnus Dei’ by bringing back the ‘Christe eleison’ music from the ‘Kyrie’ (but now scored for the choir) – Wilby might have done better to have quit whilst he was ahead and bring the work full-circle to a tranquil and cathartic conclusion with a ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ which echoes the work’s most memorable passage (rather than a hard-working fugue).

The ‘completed’ work received a full-blooded performance from the London Concert Choir (with about 120 singers) – at its best in the great Handelian choruses and with sophisticated playing from Counterpoint, a really excellent ‘period’ orchestra drawn from young ‘authentic performance’ specialists. The soloists were adequate rather than inspired but unfortunately inspiration is mandatory, especially in the florid writing for the two soprano soloists where Mozart clearly intended to show off his new bride’s vocal abilities.

Mark Forkgen has a mercifully clear beat but does little more, a pity given the responsive choir at his disposal and an orchestra of this quality. However, the performance was more than good enough to give a clear idea of the strengths of Wilby’s solution.

The evening opened with four extracts – the first and final choruses plus two orchestral interludes – from Mozart’s incidental music for ‘Thamos’ written when he was only 17 and which seem, with hindsight, to preview the Masonic music he would later write for “The Magic Flute”.

Increasingly popular as a venue – and rewarded with a full house on this occasion – Cadogan Hall really comes into its own for choral music. Heard here, the combination of a period-instrument orchestra and a substantial choir with soloists registered perfectly.

Robert Levin’s ‘completion’ of the C minor Mass is at the Proms on 8 September.

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