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Britten Sinfonia [Photo © Thomas Skovsende]
02 Apr 2018

Easter Voices, including mass settings by Mozart and Stravinsky

It was a little early, perhaps, to be hearing ‘Easter Voices’ in the middle of Holy Week. However, this was not especially an Easter programme – and, in any case, included two pieces from Gesualdo’s Tenebrae responsories for Good Friday. Given the continued vileness of the weather, a little foreshadowing of something warmer was in any case most welcome. (Yes, I know: I should hang my head in Lenten shame.)

Easter Voices, including mass settings by Mozart and Stravinsky

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Britten Sinfonia [Photo © Thomas Skovsende]

 

Andrea Gabrieli’s Maria stabat ad monumentum functioned splendidly as an introit: Mary Magdalene weeping at the tomb, telling the angels ‘they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid Him’. It cautioned us against the adoption of anachronistic models of ‘expressiveness’. This is no heart-on-sleeve lament, nor was it in performance. Britten Sinfonia Voices, under Eamonn Dougan offered a warm, nicely flowing account, the choral sound recognisably ‘English’, no doubt, but there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Who on earth, or indeed beyond, knows what the composer’s ‘intentions’ were here, in any case? The very question most likely makes no sense. He would surely have been astonished to hear that the piece was being performed in a London ‘concert hall’ in 2018, let alone that someone was writing about that on a ‘computer’, that writing soon to be posted on a noticeboard on which, in theory, anyone on God’s earth would be able to read it, although most would not.

The same, of course, would go for Mozart, and parts of it would at least have been a stretch for Stravinsky. Their music formed the twin pillars of this concert, the rest of the first half given over to Mozart’s F major Missa brevis, KV 192186f, introduced by and interspersed with short pieces by Stravinsky, the second half offering pieces by Esa-Pekka Salonen, Bruckner, and Gesualdo, leading up to a performance of Stravinsky’s Mass. Both masses were written, ‘intended’ for liturgical performance, although Stravinsky would not have been so greatly surprised to hear of concert performance, however much he might have affected to disdain it, or indeed genuinely done so.

His 1964 Fanfare for a New Theatre heralded ‘the start of the concert proper’, according to Dougan, quoted in Jo Kirkbride’s booklet note. Written for the opening of the New York State Theater, it proved, as ever, blazing, uncompromising, in its forty-second-odd, post-Webern character, whilst at the same time having one wonder: might that actually be a passing reference to Monteverdi? Probably not: one just thinks of Orfeo anyway. In any case, no one time-travels quite like Stravinsky; no one ever remains so much himself. Stravinsky’s Pater Noster and Ave Maria, following Mozart’s ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’ respectively, spoke, almost unmediated – or such was the trick. The composer would surely have approved. Choral blend was impeccable, the words highly audible. (Both were given in their later, Latin versions, as per their 1949 revision.) The former sounded a little more Russian, perhaps, as if a neo-Classical remembrance of the world he had left, the latter whiter still, with a strong sense of a musical ‘object’, a Stravinskian icon.

Stravinsky notoriously affected disapproval of Mozart’s early masses: ‘Rococo-operatic sweets of sin,’ he called them, having discovered some scores in 1942: ‘I knew I had to write a Mass of my own,’ he continued, ‘but a real one’. Give me a fake one any day – as well, of course, as Stravinskian ‘reality’. Classical sacred music, whether that of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, or others, less canonical, is woefully un-performed, with the signal exception of Mozart’s Requiem and perhaps, though only perhaps, the Mass in C minor. Granted, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis is not a work for every day. But many of Mozart’s and Haydn’s masses and other works are just that – or should be. Here we heard a small-scale performance of the Missa brevis: small choir, with soloists drawn from it, two violins, cello, double bass, chamber organ, and occasionally, those two Stravinskian trumpets. This was, not unreasonably, the sound world, if hardly the acoustic, of the church sonata, slightly augmented. It worked well in a small hall with nothing of the ‘Rococo-operatic’ to it. One can always go to Salzburg’s churches for that.

Performances were again generally warm, if occasionally less so – an interpretative decision, no doubt – from the solo strings. Words again were crystal clear. I especially liked the rich timbre of Tim Dickinson’s bass, but all solos and ensembles were well sung indeed; a fine balance between solo line and blend. The culminatory nature of the ‘Amen’ in the ‘Gloria’; the learned counterpoint of the ‘Credo’, whose contrapuntal tag has one think, whether one likes it or no, of the Jupiter Symphony; the nimble ‘Osanna’ music; and the darkness of the imploring harmonies of the ‘Agnus Dei’, which yet hung over the concluding ‘Dona nobis pacem’: such were just some of the highlights of a lovely performance, well shaped, without interventionism, by Dougan.

Salonen’s 2000 Concert étude for solo French horn, a homage to his teacher, Holger Fransman, offered an equally refreshing opening to the second half, not least given the outstanding, indeed mesmeric quality of Ben Goldscheider’s performance. It acted here almost like a wordless second introit, Messiaen heard from another, related world. The twin requirements of a single line and, at times, multiple voices (various extended techniques, including singing a line in addition to that played) were handled beautifully and, more to the point, meaningfully. The first of Bruckner’s two Aequale followed from the gallery, rooted in tradition and yet, in both melody and harmonic implications, unmistakeably Bruckner.

Gesualdo’s weird chromaticism – is that the best way to think about it at all? – stood out, without undue exaggeration, in carefully unfolding performances of ‘Omnes amici mei’ and ‘Vinea mea electa’. The former proved, perhaps, more of an object, almost in the Stravinskian sense, the latter more developmental, opening in chaster fashion, yet blossoming. Is this how such music, such words ‘should’ be performed? Who knows? Again, the question is hardly the right one to ask. One could certainly imagine what might have fascinated Stravinsky in this composer’s music.

And so to his ‘proper’ Mass, with its non-string, wind orchestra. I was interested to read Dougan speak of ‘the more lush sound world of the winds and brass in the Stravinsky’, as compared to Mozart’s strings. I hear it the other way around – and did again. Although this was anything but a cold performance, an austere, even angular quality, with roots in Symphonies of wind instruments nevertheless manifested itself. We all have our own Stravinskys, I suppose; yet, as Boulez, once put it, Stravinsky demeure (the title of his Rite of Spring analysis). Is there, was there, something ‘Oriental’, or at least ‘Orientalist’, in the opening wind and vocal arabesques of the ‘Gloria’? Or is/was that just Paris? Whatever it might have ‘been’, it was delightful. The ‘Credo’ perhaps spoke a little, yet only a little, more nostalgically, of a service from ‘home’ now once again viewed or heard as an ‘object’, its jangle of ecclesiastical Latin leading inexorably to a beautifully floated Amen. Intonation throughout was spot on, as it must be, truly permitting one to appreciate the originality of Stravinsky’s own heavenly host in the ‘Sanctus’ and the imploring qualities of the closing ‘Agnus Dei’. As a surprising encore, another object of fascination, we heard Mozart’s Ave verum corpus motet, with accompaniment from the wind orchestra on stage: Mozart and Stravinsky, perhaps, united at last.

Mark Berry


Programme:

Andrea Gabrieli: Maria stabat ad monumentum; Stravinsky: Fanfare for a New Theatre; Mozart: Missa Brevis in F major, KV 192186f, interspersed with Stravinsky:Pater Noster and Ave Maria; Salonen: Concert étude, for French horn; Bruckner: Aequale no.1, for three trombones; Gesualdo: Two movements from Tenebrae Responsories for Good Friday; Stravinsky: Mass. Ben Goldscheider (French horn)/Britten Sinfonia Voices/Britten Sinfonia/Eamonn Dougan (conductor) . Milton Court Concert Hall, London, Wednesday 28 March 2018.

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