Classical: First Night Mozart Masses, Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture
Mozart Masses, Royal Festival Hall

Twenty years after it first burst on the scene, Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus has reopened at the National Theatre. First reports suggest Shaffer has returned to his script and slightly toned down his somewhat outrageous initial portrait of Mozart, as a rowdy child who never grows up, revelling in bawdy puns and anarchic behaviour. From what biography has given us, that aspect did make for one side of Mozart's complex personality, but by no means the only one. To begin with, throughout his life, he was deeply religious and devoted to the Catholic faith, regularly attending Mass, receiving communion and attending confession.

And that deep sense of faith is exemplified in a wide range of sacred settings - litanies, vespers, oratorios and masses, all finally culminating in his last composition of all, the transcendental Requiem.

Now two of his finest mature Masses are presented side by side in a concert from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Andrew Davis - the Mass in C, K317, the "Coronation", and that in C minor, K427, the "Great".

Mozart's most prolific time for the production of church music occurred during his Salzburg period in his early 20s when he held a post as composer to the city's archbishop. The "Coronation" Mass dates from 1779. The key of C major, suiting trumpets and drums, was a particular sparkling feature of settings of High Mass of the time. Here, Mozart's orchestration is suitably austere yet glowing, displaying solo voices in clear and effective melodic lines against the orchestra, while also allowing for dramatic and powerful choral entries.

The Mass in C minor, K467, came about in more personal circumstances, Mozart vowing to compose a work to bless his recent marriage to Constanze Weber. Dating from four years after the "Coronation", the "Great" incorporates elements of a new-found Viennese style, plus a tighter grip on the fugal procedures of Bach and Handel. "Great" though this Mass is, it is still unfinished, with sections of the Credo and the entire Agnus Dei missing. As so often in the composer's hectic life, pressures of time simply prevented him completing it before the scheduled premiere. Still, what we have is far more than a torso; and both splendid Masses should richly compare and contrast when performed by the superb period-instrument outfit, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, here probing the very heart of the Enlightenment ethos itself.

The OAE plays Mozart at the Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London SE1 (0171- 960 4242) on 3 Nov at 7.30pm