Splendid, dramatic Mozart Mass from huge Orpheus and Youth Choirs

The Orpheus Choir of Wellington, the Wellington Youth Choir and Orchestra Wellington conducted by Mark Dorrell

Soloists: Anna Leese, Emma Fraser, Oliver Sewell, Kieran Rayner

Mozart: Exsultate Jubilate and Mass in C minor, K 427

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 28 September, 7:30 pm

Many of us think of Mozart’s ‘Great’ Mass as being one of the unassailable masterpieces, up there with his Requiem and the requiems of Verdi, Berlioz, Brahms and Fauré, and great choral works Messiah, Bach’s passions and the B Minor Mass, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, and so on.

But the not exactly over-flowing Michael Fowler Centre suggested that I do not have a lot of company (were ticket prices a bit high?). Almost all the side seats of the balcony were empty and the stalls were not dense with enthusiasts. It’s not as if we hear the work every year. Perhaps I don’t remember another choir performing it in recent years, but my last recollection is the Orpheus’s performance in 1988.

This was a splendid performance. We had the (perhaps inauthentic) experience of a huge choir, the Orpheus and the Youth Choir together, filling the choir stalls, which sang with enormous energy and, often, unaccustomed speed.

The mass was preceded by Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate, the solo part taken by Anna Leese. The orchestra gave spirited and authentic support, driven by Mark Dorrell, taking pains to create varied dynamics and articulations. In the same way Leese varied her projection, sometimes seeming to create a buffeting effect, a varying of intensity rather that actual volume, I thought. And it was notable that the orchestra’s dynamics scrupulously took account of what the soprano was singing; there was no ostentatious baroque affectation, such as a ban on vibrato, though the playing was always crisp and lively. The orchestra was on great form with excellent woodwind, brass and timpani making prominent

There was a nice accompaniment in the Recitativo by the chamber organ, with a solo cello contributing the other element of the continuo. Here, with longer legato lines, the soprano sounded more at ease than in the Aria, allowing her voice to flow more comfortably, and the little cadenza at the end was very striking. Finally, the best-known section, the Alleluia, involving a dramatic modulation, held few terrors for Ms Leese.

The major part of the evening was taken by the Mass, almost an hour long though it is famously incomplete, with no Agnus Dei and a few other smaller sections missing. But these are concerns only for the listener who mistakes it as a liturgical work; that is irrelevant for us and may not have been very important to Mozart either, though it is speculated that he used other Mass settings that he had written to fill the gaps. Some filling of gaps is common and the version used here is a common one, by Mozart and Haydn scholar, H C Robbins Landon.

The performance paid attention to all the great variety of styles and treatments which, as the notes in the programme point out, reflect earlier and current choral and operatic styles: Bach and Handel, Gluck and Pergolesi, involving choir, orchestra and soloists in taxing activities.

In the spell-binding opening, which seems at once to promise a creation of great moment, the music sets a moderato tempo, though the orchestra and choir were generally crisp and staccato, which allowed more attention to detail both on the part of performers and audience. In the Kyrie different sections sang contrasting words simultaneously, with varying emphasis; Mozart’s constantly changing use of various sections of the choir, dividing parts, always with perceptible dramatic intention, found scrupulous treatment by the choir. For all its size, Mark Dorrell achieved marvellous precision, varied colour and great power from the choir, throughout; often emphatic as in the ‘Gratias’, and slow and arresting in the pleading ‘Qui Tollis’, against stabbing strings in angry dotted rhythm, that focus attention on the final words, ‘Miserere nobis’; one of the choir’s real high points.

Anna Leese took the first soprano part, entering a couple of minutes into the Kyrie, and delivered at a subdued, stately pace: which is how it should be, leading movingly, with the choir, to the beguiling little melody that soon takes it over.

The bass Kieran Rayner, entered momentarily at the beginning of the Gloria, giving the words a sober, robust masculine tone, though it is a predominantly choral section. Anna returned in the more lively ‘Laudamus te’ section, singing with crisp phrase endings, scaling the heights in a few decorative, bravura passages.

Soloists appear sparingly through the piece; the second soprano, Emma Fraser, does not appear till the ‘Domine Deus’ when both join in duet; a duet that presents continuous challenges. Fraser’s voice offered a somewhat unexpected contrast with Leese’s: Fraser was distinctly brighter and allowing one to feel that the latter was singing a mezzo role.

After the choral ‘Qui Tollis’ the two sopranos were joined by tenor Oliver Sewell in the ‘Quoniam’; there the women’s more penetrating voices slightly disadvantaged the tenor, and Fraser’s voice outshone Leese’s by its sheer brightness.

The elaborate Gloria ends ritually with a fugal choral climax, Allegro, and emphatic in the final Amen, all of which conductor and choir drove with tremendous verve, sounding as if it were the finale of the entire mass.

The bass, Kieran Rayner, again appears at the start of the Credo, enunciating the church’s first simple command ‘Credo in unum Deum’, but the choir takes over with almost overwhelming impact, ranging far and wide in both dynamics and range, the orchestral strings dancing with pungent little quaver motifs.

The ‘Et Incarnatus’ offered display for both Fraser and for the orchestral winds, as her words are accompanied by flute, the bassoon and oboe to support a plangent, almost lamenting tone. Her voice projected splendidly, beautifully, and proved a real show-case for her in a movement which is indeed a small masterpiece. It was the only time clapping broke out spontaneously, and it was entirely deserved.

We do not hear the solo bass part properly till the final section, the Benedictus, which goes steadily, rather soberly paced to start; all four soloists are in charge for a considerable time. Both men sang well, but they were simply out-gunned in vocal intensity by the two sopranos, and it was not till the choir entered with the orchestra, in the ‘Osanna in excelsis’, that we got a hint of what might become a big choral finale. But it’s really a bit of a tease for it proves to be a slightly truncated affair, though a none the less fitting finale; in truth, however, it does lend credence to the thought that Mozart did intend to write a glorious Agnus Dei to bring his masterpiece to a really dramatic, powerful end.

But what there is, from these splendidly rehearsed forces, made a wonderfully satisfying evening.

It is probably unorthodox to draw attention to a performance that is there for the world to see and hear on Youtube, but having been so enthralled by this Wellington performance, I looked around the Internet. Here was a stunning performance by French choir and orchestra: the brilliant young Accentus Chamber Choir and the Insula Orchestra, playing on period instruments, under their conductor Laurence Equilbey. See: www.youtube.com/watch?v=oTI_z714dOo‎







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