Mozart was an admirer of Handel, and not only did he re-orchestrate several of Handel’s works, but continued to reference the baroque style in his own religious music. Monday’s concert saw an exploration of this connection by the baroque ensemble La Nuova Musica, with The Holst Singers and four guest soloists under the direction of David Bates.
A selection of numbers from the Mozart-arranged Judas Maccabaeus opened the first half: the Overture and the choruses ‘See the conqu’ring hero’ and ‘Sing Unto God’. The heft of the trombones on the bass line, and the delicacy of the woodwind writing demonstrated Mozart’s intuitive understanding of the need for beefing the pieces up for late-18th-century ears, while paying homage to Handel’s brilliant craftsmanship. Orchestra and choir were fully focused, delivering mannered performances with crisp fugal entries and a charming blend of baroque strings, pointed up by edgier woodwinds.
To provide a taste of Mozart writing as Mozart, Mary Bevan and Lucy Crowe were each allotted a first-half soprano aria (although a straight Handel aria in the mix might have made for a better contrast). Mary Bevan was not, alas, on top form for ‘Ruhe sanft’ (from Zaide), and, although her creamy mezzo quality worked well with the quieter moments of the aria, her top notes were not quite on point. Lucy Crowe fared better with the concert aria ‘Vorrei spiergarvi, using the extraordinarily varied registers of her voice to highlight the changes in mood of the text, managing the two-and-a-bit-octave leap in the final bars with effortless skill.
It is sad that Mozart’s great Mass in C minor was never completed, as the missing movements of ‘Credo’, and the ‘Agnus Dei’ would presumably have given a chance for the tenor and bass soloists to shine. Nick Pritchard and Timothy Dickinson performed their trio and quartet movements with solid excellence, however, balancing well with the two sopranos. Mary Bevan’s account of ‘Laudamus te’ was superb, demonstrating agility and solidity in the lower register, and the pyrotechnic duet ‘Domine Deus’ with Lucy Crowe showed us that her top notes were in fine form after all. Crowe’s own movements continued the perfection: the ‘Kyrie’ was appropriately plaintive, with the chest-voice in full-on velvet mode, and her liquid delivery of ‘Et incarnatus’ (whose flute, oboe and bassoon obbligato lines were delivered with perfect synergy and sensitivity, the baroque instruments making an unusual and enjoyable change in timbre) was very special indeed.
Bates kept the tempi fast throughout, but paid particular attention to dynamic, and there were some splendid moments of crescendo/diminuendo pairing – especially in the ‘Kyrie’ and in the final chord of ‘Gratias’. The Holst Singers were on top form, producing a uniformly focused sound, whether light and unstrained in ‘Osanna’ or sturdy and military in ‘Credo’. Choral entries were spot-on and solid – the altos at the opening of the ‘Kyrie’, and the basses later in that movement being good examples. There were also some elegant builds of sound as Mozart piled entry upon entry – for example in the ‘Dominus Deus’ of ‘Sanctus’ – and some thrilling final crescendi, such as at the end of ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’. The orchestra had its highlights too: the thinnest of string tones in ‘Et incarnatus’ was magical, and the brass rising from the depths under ‘pleni sunt coeli’ provided a contrasting moment of exhilaration. This Mozart/baroque fusion elicited a plea, though: surely it is time (especially at this season) for a performance of Mozart’s brilliant arrangement of Messiah.