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Unfinished business

28 September 2006

9:29 AM

28 September 2006

9:29 AM

Mozart is full of loose ends and extremes. One-off miniatures, contextless and unparalleled, of singular profundity and perfection — the A-minor rondo and B-minor adagio for piano, the pieces for glass harmonica and mechanical organ, the Masonic Funeral Music; and four of his most ambitious-scaled monuments — two quasi-religious operas, Idomeneo taking seria into realms of extraordinary sublimity, Zauberflöte adding to these a further range of humanistic sentiment, comedy, pathos, slapstick; and two quasi-operatic religious works, both unfinished, the C-minor Mass and the D-minor Requiem, which equally take him into otherwise untried realms. Both were unwontedly personal, if hardly in a Romantic sense: the Requiem widely seen as his own swansong, the Mass a wedding gift to his bride Constanze, with a starring role for her soprano voice built in.

How to round them off rightly has exercised musicians ever since Mozart’s troubled deathbed. Rescue-work on the mighty Mass-torso had been begun by the composer himself, transforming it into an oratorio, Davide Penitente, for which some fine new numbers were added to the retexted liturgical movements. It has long seemed plausible to take these additions back towards the Mass they might have come from.

Latest so to do is the pianist and scholar Robert Levin. He has gone further yet, adapting extra fragments and sketches with skill and conviction into a performing score that completes the familiar liturgical framework with the size, splendour, high inspiration of what Mozart left. Its spirited performance towards the end of the Proms was a fitting climax to its celebration of the 250th birthday.

As always, it’s the Credo that presents the hardest challenge. This long text, unlyrical and undramatic, doesn’t walk into music like the brief, intense refrain-shapes of the Kyrie and Agnus Dei; even the relatively loose-knit Gloria presents a series of strong, telling contrasts, the stuff of compositional stimulation. But the Credo’s list of theological tenets — ‘and, and, and’ — can prove recalcitrant. In Mozart’s C-minor Mass that sets out bravely, with trumpets and drums, in C-major; after ten bars the texture is incomplete, though all the voice-parts are present over a bassline, plus indications of the principal figuration and momentum. Which gets him to the Descent from Heaven. The Incarnation is rendered in a ravishing coloratura soprano aria straight from the theatre. Constanze’s part and the three solo woodwinds (flute, oboe, bassoon) amorously entwining her, then taking off all together in a four-part cadenza, are complete; the string accompaniment is present in full to open and close; in-between, it’s sketchy but easily realisable, by analogy and from the full bassline. Thereafter, il nulla. Just when the central mysteries of the faith loom imminent we must perforce shift straight to the Sanctus, which takes them as read. This is not a concert-work for all its worldly charms; and Mozart was a devout Catholic for all his involvement in Masonry and the Enlightenment. As Levin says, it is an oddity (at the least) to omit or eschew (for whatever reason) the ‘Crucifixion, Resurrection and the hope for the life to come’. His version of the whole, whether or not the ‘100% Mozart’ he claims, must stand or fall by his solution to its most conspicuous absence.

So how does the rest of the Credo strike? The Crucifixus is a splendid piece of learned counterpoint. Severity continues in the et resurrexit, lively and vigorous though it be, and cheerfulness breaks in with a tenor aria at et in Spirito Sancto. The ‘One, Catholic and Apostolic Church’ receives an olden-style polyphonic chorus surrounded by busy string activity: it turns chromatic, in twists and turns anticipating the Requiem, at moments of introspection. Chromaticism prevails wholly in the et exspecto fugato: at what it expects — resurrectionem mortuorum — comes a traditional hush and cessation; then vitam venturi brushes away care in another fugue, muscular, conventional, the right thing in the right place.

So to the Sanctus, all Mozart except for a likely layout for double choir, and decidedly routine compared with the earlier glories of his Gloria. The Osanna recalls the dire ‘all legal devices considered’ fugue for two pianos Mozart wrote in the same key at the same time, wooing his fiancée with polyphonic prowess (she was fond of counterpoint). The Benedictus is another matter, and when the Osanna returns, curtailed, it seems to breathe a more liberated air.

Back to Levin’s ‘100% Mozart’ for the missing Agnus. Again severity is paramount, in a fine soprano aria, lyrical yet angular, pungent in interval and harmony, screwing up the tension as the chorus joins the final invocation. Thence to dona nobis pacem, a sturdy number for the full forces, over carillon-like descending scales, which as it continues incorporates the tensions of what precedes it, avoiding facile optimism, before getting stuck on a hub, resembling that towards the end of the fugue closing the Gloria, then resolving it to reach a good solid conclusion. Once more, not especially wonderful in itself: simply the mot juste, often hard to find in its very straightforwardness.

Hats off! One of the greatest works by one of the greatest composers can now be presented in a state worthy of its greatest elements, rather than trailing out into disappointment. Where will Robert Levin strike now? He did the Requiem for Mozart’s previous anniversary in 1991. Will we have to wait till the next for his Zaide and The Goose of Cairo?

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