Masaaki Suzuki conducts the Bach Collegium Japan in a performance of Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor

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WORKS: Great Mass in C minor; Exsultate, jubilate
PERFORMER: Carolyn Sampson, Olivia Vermeulen, Makoto Sakurada, Christian Immler; Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki


Mozart, not Bach? Absolutely. Masaaki Suzuki built his choir, his period band, and his international acclaim on Bach’s cantatas. Here he follows up his first recording of Mozart – the Requiem, released last year – with stunning success. Suzuki grasps the directness of Mozart’s Catholic faith. Gone are the operatic flashes found in earlier big-name Mass recordings: stripping the score right back, Suzuki makes musicianship dominate. He taps into the subtle arts of his fellow performers, especially Carolyn Sampson, to create a benchmark performance.

On 4 January 1783 Mozart wrote to his father about a half-finished Mass and the fulfilment of a promise, which modern scholars have interpreted as an act of thanksgiving related to his wife, Constanze, who led the soloists when the C Minor Mass premiered in Salzburg later that year. This early version lacked instrumental parts, as well as the Credo and Agnus Dei. Later, after setting half the Credo, Mozart put the Mass aside. Modern conductors have to work with orchestrations by others, and Suzuki’s choice of Franz Beyer’s lean 1989 score is fitting: as in his Bach recordings, Suzuki here seeks transparency of texture, timbre and colour.

This transparency allows Mozart’s major ideas to crystallise no matter what tempo is set. Sometimes Suzuki slows the pulse so that harmonic pillars become massive, as in the Kyrie. Elsewhere, he has sections of his Bach Collegium orchestra and chorus scamper mischievously after each other in interjections as graceful as they are distinctive. The choir is a force of nature: even doubled in the Sanctus and Hosanna, it manages to pull slightly ahead of Suzuki’s breakneck tempo to close the movement with snap. By contrast, in ‘Et incarnatus est’, the sweetest of the disc’s many ravishing moments, Carolyn Sampson arabesques effortlessly up to the stratosphere in a slow dance with solo woodwinds.

The three other vocal soloists equal Sampson’s elegance, forging a blissful euphony in their ensembles. On what other recording of the Mass do the principal vocalists alter their timbres on demand to perfect their blend? Yet Sampson takes the palm. She concludes this disc with Mozart’s solo motet Exsultate, jubilate. The 17-year-old Mozart wrote this for the castrato Venanzio Rauzzini, deploying this star to flaunt his own virtuosity. Sampson’s suave coloratura, and the cheeky woodwind interruptions, hint at Mozart’s youthful arrogance.

The jewel of this recording is, however, the Great Mass. Suzuki shows us that Mozart, like Bach, took inspiration from praising God. However grand the choruses, however reckless the solos, Mozart’s C Minor Mass draws power from its innocence – here, uniquely, restored.

Listen to an excerpt from this recording here.


Berta Joncus