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Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor comes shrouded in mysteries. Why did he start to compose it? Why did he leave it unfinished? It seems likely the answers were deeply personal. Mozart clearly intended the Mass as a showcase for his new wife, Constanze, who was the star soloist at its solitary performance, in Salzburg in 1783 (when it comprised only those parts he had completed: Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Benedictus), although many years later Constanze told a biographer that Mozart had composed the Mass to celebrate the birth of their first child. The baby’s death within a few months may explain why he abandoned the work, although there is another possible reason. Before starting the Mass, Mozart had been studying scores by Handel and Bach, whose music evidently inspired its grand scale, lavish orchestration (12 obbligato wind parts!) and array of classical and baroque styles that H.C. Robbins Landon once described as an ‘amazing juxtaposition of Saxon fugues with Italian-like arias’. It seems very plausible that Mozart, after his initial burst of enthusiasm, realised that the scope of his Mass was so ambitious it was never likely to be performed in its entirety.

This recording is based on Franz Beyer’s 1989 completion of the Mass, although Masaaki Suzuki includes only those movements that Mozart had either finished or sketched out in detail (‘Credo in unum Deum’, ‘Et incarnatus est’), so he omits Beyer’s proposed Agnus Dei. The Bach Collegium Japan’s performance is thrilling, dynamic and totally committed: they rise to the challenge of the music’s solemn splendour, yet remain fully alive to its episodes of typically Mozartian tenderness. While the choruses are sung magnificently, the jewel here is soprano Carolyn Sampson, in the Constanze role: her ‘Christie eleison’ breaks through the Kyrie’s dark gravitas like a burst of sunlight, and her ‘Et incarnatus est’, with flute, oboe and bassoon interlaced around her soaring, swooping vocal lines, is meltingly beautiful. She’s also the soloist on Mozart’s popular early motet ‘Exsultate, jubilate’, which fills out the disc; it’s nicely sung but inevitably feels like an anti-climax after the epic grandeur of the Mass.

Graham Lock Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Early Music Today, 2017 - ©Rhinegold Publishing