City Recital Hall, Sydney: May 8, 2013
All music by Mozart:
Duet for Two Basset Horns from KV 487
Allegro from Eine kleine Nachtmusik, KV 525
Rondo for Three Basset Horns from KV 439B
Andante from Violin & Piano Sonata No.17, KV 296
Brendan Joyce – violin
Paul Dyer – fortepiano
Difficile lectu in F major KV, 559
Adagio from Gran Partita, KV 361
Ave verum corpus in D major, K618
Mass in C minor K. 427
Sara Macliver – soprano
Fiona Campbell – mezzo soprano
Richard Butler – tenor
The Australian Brandenburg Choir
Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
Paul Dyer – artistic director and conductor
Since the resurrection of certain large and important Mozart works, Idomeneo being the main example which only came back to theatres and concert halls again around 60 years ago, much of his sacred music remains unsung or at least rarely heard. The Requiem mass, the C minor mass, the Coronation mass, Ave verum corpus are more or less ubiquitous, and do deserve many hearings. There are certain others a little less often heard, but there remain very many masses, mainly short youthful ones, litanies and fragments, starting from Mozart’s childhood in the late 1760’s through the ’70’s, with many fewer in the ’80’s when he was writing his finest operas. These sacred pieces, as well as the church sonatas which are thought to have been played as part of some of the masses, and also I might add Mozart’s ceremonial masonic music which also has a particularly strong and direct metaphysical sense (though masonic music has its own peculiar style), approach the universe in a very Mozartean way, surprisingly similar to his secular music, even though they respond to different texts or purposes. These sacred pieces’ clear dramatic sense makes them well suited to the concert hall, even if they can lose some of their gravity in the more modern workaday venues. Still they aren’t operas and obviously the separate religious importance matters greatly whatever the occasion which sees them played, even if both Mozart’s sacred choral and secular music span human existence with such deep and sensitive empathy. Mozart’s thoughts and music-making about the divine are all the more powerful when one considers that though he wrote less sacred music in the 1780’s, at the same time (or at the latest by 1790), he greatly desired the job of St. Stephen’s cathedral composer, to the point of volunteering to assist the aging incumbent.
Mozart probably would have had the job (on a paying basis) had he lived even a little longer. And though he didn’t have occasion to write all he wanted for the church — in particular he would have liked to write long masses with as much elbow room as Bach’s B minor — in the church pieces he did write, as well as some of the contemporary instrumental music one can hear how gleefully he took to writing counterpoint from the age of twelve, and on into his early twenties and onward, especially in listening to the influence of the Master’s, J. S. Bach, as it comes out in Mozart’s own style of counterpoint, and in his own unique use of unexpected, extremely dissonant chords and his effortless melodic expression. The basset horn provides an especially ripe tone for such harmonic experimentation. In his trio and even the duet the whole is far more than the sum of its parts thanks in part to the unique, maybe even serendipitous beating and other dissonant effects that come out of combining these instruments with others of their own kind, because of their extraordinary range, even while they are known for their sonorous, dulcet, mellow timbre. While the duet is more tightly entwined and self-supported than the trio, with neither of the voices holding forth or leading, at least not for the whole time, the trio adds a little more depth and solidity. The addition of the third instrument allows for the full broad range of pitch and timbre of this versatile horn, the third voice playing a sort of basso continuo. The musicians’ sensitive interpretation allowed Mozart’s lush and complex counterpoint, maybe less economical than his later constructions, but well suited to what he was trying to say at that point in his life, to emerge clearly. Though just short pieces, the depth of playing of these Australian Brandenburg Orchestra musicians made the music bloom.
Unfortunately Sara Macliver and Fiona Campbell gave spoken introductions to each piece which severely threatened one’s enjoyment of the music, the syrupy, even icky clichés they read out seemed to try to peg the music and composer to something they are not, as all the popular history, films and tourist shops on the Vienna Ringstrasse have tried. Also, the self-congratulatory attitude of one of these interludes was out of character for the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, which is usually serious about its music and disinterested, as one can see from their other concerts and any review I’ve written of them in the past two years. In the presence of talking interspersed in a program of some of the most popular movements of some of Mozart’s most popular pieces it was quite difficult to recover one’s positive or even neutral expectations, to be able to listen to them as if for the first time. Also the antics of violinist Brendan Joyce over Paul Dyer’s fortepiano introduction to the violin sonata andante distracted from the music, though the audience wasn’t exactly guffawing. Granted the first movement was missing, but still an audience’s and a musician’s first opening into a fragment of a piece — starting from their stride onto the stage —, how they greet the music, is a very important segment of time, especially when the duo clearly had a much more serious interpretation in mind. Dyer’s accompaniment pointed to something more profound and mysterious in the piece, and though Brendan Joyce played very strongly, with intensity, his ideas for the piece seemed less certain, spread thinner with at times overdrawn rubato and portamento giving those melodies an exaggerated chewy quality.
“Dificile lectu”, a three part canon Mozart composed to make fun of a contemporary Bavarian singer, filling it with low-brow humor, here sung very finely, with great beauty yet also making very gently fun of a certain hyper-tidy style of choral singing one sometimes hears these days, which takes itself much too seriously. Using antiphony, with separate groups of singers on either side of the mezzanine and two other groups processing in opposite directions around the aisles in the stalls, giving the opportunity to hear the fine Australian Brandenburg Choir singers at close quarters, no doubt irreverently referring to a generic religious ceremonial choreography.
Even finer singing, with remarkable expression as a group, was the Choir’s performance of Ave verum corpus. A very strange piece at one level, with the violent and gory text and the extremely softly spoken, even gentle music, it gives ready insight into how Mozart thought and felt. The sensitive man transcends in this piece, if not every one of the others he wrote, the literal horror and violence in Jesus’ life, in the literal hellfire, in his own times, perhaps in ours, without sentimentality or falseness, or the laying on of superficial balm.
The mass, after the interval, was thankfully not burdened with chat before, after, or during, and was complete temporally, orchestrally and musically. Mozart’s C minor mass, a wedding gift to his wife who sang one of the soprano parts in the first performance, is formed of strongly contrasting sections, giving it a particular festive grandeur, weight and sweep while still speaking at an intimate level, a false dichotomy Mozart overleaped especially well. Thus it is an occasional piece, like the Coronation mass, his other large piece of sacred music from the 1780’s. The ABO’s take on the mass was to highlight the theatrical aspects in this modern concert hall, in emphasizing the contrast of the various sections, bringing across the strong emotions of the piece with a very full orchestral sound and a certainty of tempo and pulse thanks to Paul Dyer’s conducting which united the larger mass with a very vital momentum. The emphasis was on the larger, theater emotions, the exploding joy of the Gloria for example, which was very much genuine. The large orchestra and full, overwhelming sound were got somewhat at the expense of the detail in the choral singing and the orchestration. Also, the sopranos filled the large recital hall powerfully in some very demanding, wide-ranging singing, but their singing style is one quite far removed from natural speech, which is a valid approach in its place of course, but to me is not ideal for Mozart’s religious music because of the loss of the nuanced, human expression the arias and ensembles demand. Mozart’s thoughts on the mass text were extremely subtle, even at a young age; for example we have some two dozen Mozart kyries either as fragments on their own or as part of larger masses and each is slightly different despite the seemingly simple text with its three repeated words. In the pastoral Et incarnatus est in the Credo, when the pipe-like flute and oboe melodies give relief after the spectral trombone-heavy orchestration of earlier sections, Sara Macliver sounded much more natural, with more dynamic variation, with a pleasing rapport with those oboe and flute solos. Richard Butler’s singing, though the tenor does not get as major a role, was always rich in expressive detail, much more as if he were speaking the words directly to the audience. Whether the audience, getting a little bit itchy around where I was seated, had a significant spiritual experience is another matter, not necessarily related to the performance of the music. But I think some seemed to appreciate the music for its own sake.