Saturday, 28 December 2013

Mozart's sacred music from New College, Oxford

Mozart - Music for Salzburg Cathedral - New College, Oxford/Higginbottom - Novum 1388
Having given us a superb disc of sacred music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier for their previous disc, Edward Higginbottom and the choir of New College Oxford have turned their attention to Mozart's sacred music for Salzburg Cathedral from the 1770's. Accompanied by the period instruments of Collegium Novum, Higginbottom and his forces perform Mozart's Litaniae Lauretanae K195, Sonata in C K329 and Vesperae de Dominica K321, again on the choir's own label Novum. The soloists are taken from the choir and anyone who has followed the choir's previous recordings will be heartened to see treble Inigo Jones's name against the soprano solos. Jones is joined by boy alto Michael Alchin, tenor Guy Cutting and bass Patrick Edmond.

Taking the soloists from the choir is simply one of a number of factors which indicate the amount of care and thought which have gone into this recording. The use of a boy alto, and having a mixture of boy altos and counter-tenors in the choir, means that the choral sound is closer to that of Mozart's day. The use of a boy for the soprano solos reflects that fact that many of Mozart's pieces were written for every day or only semi-state occasions. It was only when the Archbishop himself officiated that castrati from the court could be expected to join in.

In a note at the end of the CD booklet Higginbottom talks of the layout of the forces and how they, to a certain extent, duplicate the way the forces were laid out in Salzburg Cathedral. One area where Higginbottom is innovative is in omitting trombones. It was common at this period for trombones to double the three lower choral parts, but quite rightly Higginbottom views this as a way of keeping the choir in order in a large acoustic rather then anything more particular. Omitting them on this recording means that the choral texture has a finer grained transparency than it otherwise would. And with a choir as good as that of New College, you hardly need trombones to keep them up to the mark!


The disc opens with Mozart's Litaniae Lauretanae, his Litany of Loreto which is a series of invocations to the Virgin. It was often celebrated at Salzburg Cathedral during Holy Week and during May (one of the two Marian months), K195 is the second of two settings which Mozart wrote in the 1770's. Mozart has divided the text into five movements. We open with a poised Kyrie in which the Adagio introduction is followed by an Allegro with the sort of dialogue between soloists and choir which makes it clear that Mozart was here writing for soloists from within the ensemble.

Music at Salzburg had a careful hierarchy. The setting of K195 does not include trumpets and timpani, which is a good indication that the work was not written for a service where the Archbishop himself was celebrating. This means we can be reasonably confident that the soprano solos were sung by a boy treble. The other major work on the disc, K321, by contrast does include trumpets and timpani so we can presume the part was written for one of the court castratos.

The second movement, Sancta Maria opens with an extended soprano solo, here sung by Inigo Jones on stunning form, bringing a wonderfully adult feel to the musicianship. This is followed by a lovely fluent solo for Alchin and Cutting. The third movement, Salus infirmorum is an altogether more sober affair, with choir and soloists in dialogue. The Regina Angelorum gives us a lovely fluent tenor solo from Cutting with some admirably even passagework. Finally in the Agnus Dei, the focus turns back to Jones whose solo echoes the leaps and passagework of the previous movement's tenor solo in quite spectacular fashion. Jones delivers the solo with beautifully confident poise.

The Sonata in C K 329 is one of seventeen that Mozart wrote for use in services between 1771 and 1780. It features the largest ensemble of the group, adding oboes, horns, trumpets and timpani to the usual organ and strings. It includes a solo part for organ and was in fact the first Mozart wrote after his promotion to Court Organist. It is a lyrically engaging, fully worked out sonata-form movement, given an elegantly involving performance by Collegium Novum.

Mozart's vesper service K321 does not have a name in his autograph. It has acquired the name Vesperae de Dominica (Sunday Vespers), though in fact the choice of psalms matches that of the Vesperae de Confessore and also Vespers for Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. As the setting includes trumpets and timpani it was clearly written for a special feast presided over by the Archbishop. There are five psalm settings Dixit Dominus, Confitebor tibi, Beatus vir, Laudate pueri and Laudate Dominum, plus a setting of the Magnificat.

The Dixit Dominus is nicely grand, with passages of dialogue between soli and choir. Confitebor tibi starts of quite subdued, with a nice solo from Jones, but when the full choir comes in the results are highly dramatic. Beautus vir is far more up beat, with a nice alternation between soli and choir. Laudate pueri is scored for tutti chorus with the orchestra doubling the voices, starting with a fugue which Mozart develops in interesting ways. By contrast the Laudate Dominum is a thorough going aria, quite a spectacular one which would have originally been sung by the castrato. Here Inigo Jones sings it in dazzling manner. The concluding Magnificat has some nice interaction between the solo group and the chorus, with a very grand feel caused by the return of the trumpets and timpani.

The CD booklet includes an excellent article on the music on the disc and background to Mozart's time in Salzburg, plus full texts and translations.

I have to confess that when I received this disc I was a little unsure as Mozart's sacred music for Salzburg has not been very high on my list of delights. But as soon as I put the disc on, I was delighted and entranced. The performances from Higginbottom and his performers are extremely winning. The orchestra is crisp and stylish, and the choir are on strong form. As with their Couperin and Charpentier discs, I am impressed with how the group is able to produce such stylish and idiomatic performances. The disc should certainly win many admirers for Mozart's often maligned music for Salzburg.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) - Litaniae Lauretanae K195 (1774) [27.45]
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) - Sonata in C K329 (1779) [4.46]
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) - Vesperae de Dominica K321 (1779) [29.59]
Inigo Jones (soprano)
Michael Alchin (alto)
Guy Cutting (tenor)
Patrick Edmond (bass)
Choir of New College, Oxford
Collegium Novum
Edward Higginbottom (conductor)
Recorded in the Church of St. Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford, 24-26 June 2013.
Novum NCR 1388 1CD [63.10]

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