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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Great Mass in C minor, K. 427
Patricia Petibon (soprano I), Lynne Dawson (soprano II), Joseph Cornwell (tenor), Alan Ewing (bass), Les Saqueboutiers de Toulouse, Les Arts Florissants, William Christie (conductor)
Recorded at Abbaye de Lessay, Normandy (20–23 April 1999) – 49’
Erato 2564 65889-3 (distributed by Naxos of America) – Compact disc with insert

This reissue of a 1999 recording of Mozart’s Great Mass may be over 12 years old now, and that’s hard to believe, especially considering how long the “hip” early music scene had been around before that. Mozart’s colorful Mass is a piece that surely benefits from a lean, transparent playing style. Sure there are ample moments where it benefits from a romantic reading of the piece, à la Solti or Karajan, but Mozart’s Mass for double chorus is grounded in the traditions of Bach and Handel. William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants, as one of the premier early music ensembles in the world, provide some majestic and effortless playing in this recording.

The “Christie sound” is so clean and round around the edges, that it may not be to every listener’s taste for this piece, whether they prefer the “romantic” or “hip” style of playing. Christie’s performance lacks the weight of the former, and the spontaneity of the latter. Still, it is hard to not admire the noble refinement of sound that the ensemble achieves in a movement such as “Sanctus.” Choral entrances are transparent, melismas are light, and purity of sound is infectious. Likewise, the “Gloria in excelsis” bubbles thanks to the exact playing by strings and brass. The ensuing contrast is achieved with minimal fuss, but effective contrast. The Chorus’ diction is precise with their subtle Germanic Latin consonants. Intonation is spot-on in the opening of the “Gratias” and the homophonic movement is stealthily achieved. If anything, their sound is too perfect, occasionally sounding sterile in the bass section as in “Cum Sancto Spiritu,” but this is a matter of preference.

The highly underrated Patricia Petibon is the standout of the soloists, providing a pristine and compelling soprano sound that soars over the orchestral textures. She tends to croon by straight-toning her entrances, but it is a beautiful effect that leads to cascading phrases of pure sincerity. Her opening phrases of “Christe eleison” are stunning. Lynn Dawson is not quite as impressive. Her more mature soprano voice is lovely, but is less secure in pitch and a bit more confined in character. Her “Laudamus Te” is lacking in the same unrestrained range of expression that Petibon displays. Tenor Joseph Cornwell sings with a youthful but solid tenor sound. He navigates Mozart’s melismas well and displays consistency throughout his range. Alan Ewing sings Mozart’s bass lines with fine musicality and sensitivity to style.

This release does not include translations or essays, only a link to a website which appeared to be non-functioning. Another significant issue is the length of the disc, which is certainly lacking in content. Given today’s compact discs, a Coronation Mass or another short work could easily fit on this disc to help fill it out. This is a satisfying recording, and one that Christie’s admirers will undoubtedly enjoy. However, there is still something missing for my tastes. Christie’s Mozart is expressive, beautifully played, but lacking in spontaneity and drama. At times it strikes me as too perfect. Still, one could do far worse.

Matthew Richard Martinez




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