Posthorn Serenade & Mass in C

Serenade in D, K320 (Posthorn)
Mass in C, Op.86

Sally Matthews (soprano)
Sara Mingardo (contralto)
John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Alastair Miles (bass)

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 26 February, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Few concerts during the course of 2006 will comprise so understated yet purely enjoyable a coupling of Mozart and Beethoven as this one.

Indeed few Mozart tributes will include one of the large-scale serenades that, even more than the symphonies, are the composer’s primary orchestral achievements of his Salzburg years. Like the earlier Haffner Serenade, which incorporates a violin concerto, the Posthorn can be heard as separate works merging in an unwieldy but effective whole.

Thus the first, second, fifth and seventh movements have the makings of a fully-fledged symphony, with the remaining three constituting a miniature serenade in themselves. Whether Sir Colin Davis perceives the work as such, he clearly relishes the interplay of movements that a complete performance (rare nowadays) makes possible. And, while the symphonic weight of the initial Allegro and expressive gravity of the Andantino were to be expected, the Concertante and Rondeau were rendered with an ease and limpidity – the piquant woodwind writing an anticipation of serenades to come – that almost stole the show in context. The two Minuets did not entirely avoid rhythmic heaviness – though Rod Franks was almost infallible in his posthorn solo in the latter one – and the closing Presto had a robustness suggesting festive students of a distinctly ‘mature’ kind, but the enjoyment exuded by the performance was infectious in itself – ensuring that the work’s revival was a worthwhile one.

Coming a week after Davis’s often-inspirational account of the Missa Solemnis, the earlier Mass in C cannot claim comparable intensity, but relative absence of profundity does not mean it lacks depth in its response to the text. Rather the piece pursues an integrated, almost symphonic approach to the setting of the Mass that, even in the wake of Haydn’s tautly argued mature versions, must have seemed to fly in the face of worship even by late-Enlightenment standards. Hence the closely-woven motivic connections across and between movements – with only the idea that emerges at the outset of the ‘Kyrie’ having a distinctive melodic profile, such that Beethoven is mindful to reintroduce it at the close of the ‘Agnus Dei’; thus binding the whole work together with an expressive as well as a formal consistency. It is this cohesion, outweighing the trappings of religious convention that initially sealed its fate, which makes it an intriguing and satisfying setting from a latter-day perspective.

Although the solo quartet is secondary to the chorus, Sally Matthews’s dextrousness and John Mark Ainsley’s eloquence were a constant source of pleasure, with Sara Mingardo and Alastair Miles proving as responsive to Beethoven’s ‘lesser’ Mass as of its greater counterpart. Another lusty and disciplined contribution from the LSO Chorus, and a finely-honed orchestral Response confirming Davis’s affection for a work whose overall rewards – like that of the Mozart serenade – are by no means inconsiderable.

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