John VOID Sheppard
MusicWeb International
November 2013

Classical Opera have already recorded Mozart’s Apollo et Hyacinthus on Linn (see review) as what was announced as the start of a complete cycle of the composer’s operas. They now present his next work chronologically on Signum, and on the basis of the exceptional quality of these two recordings I very much hope that the series will continue under one or other of these or with another label.

It would be easy to get bogged down in a discussion as to whether Die Schuldigkeit des Ersten Gebots (The obligation of the first commandment) should be included at all in a complete cycle of Mozart’s operas. Bärenreiter’s edition of the composer’s complete works puts it in the category of sacred vocal works rather than as a stage work. It is however correctly described in the Signum booklet as being the first part of a sacred Singspiel. It was in fact intended for performance during Lent when secular dramas or operas were not permitted in Salzburg although to what extent its performance involved staged action seems unclear. The libretto was by Ignaz Weisser and is an allegorical representation of the temptations of the Christian Soul. Mozart was commissioned to write the music for the first section, with that for the other two sections given to Michael Haydn and Anton Adlgasser although their contributions have not survived.

The main character of the section that Mozart wrote is what Ian Page translates as 'a half-hearted Christian'. He is tempted by 'the Spirit of Worldliness' but is kept on the right path by 'the Spirit of Christianity', assisted by, and with comments from, Divine Mercy and Divine Justice. You may be forgiven for expecting this to be somewhat dry and predictable. It is not. Worldliness is given many good lines, and her characterisation of Christianity (in Ian Page’s translation) as 'a whimsical crank who allows other, or himself, almost no pleasure … who seeks to force on everyone his own moral philosophy, which is full of naïve simple-mindedness but very annoying and inflexible … his words, thoughts and deeds are nothing but priests’ mumbo-jumbo, in a word he’s a completely peculiar sort' sounds remarkably similar to the kind of comments made by some of Professor Dawkins’ followers. No wonder with such eloquent arguments that the Christian is tempted and that this section of the drama ends with Christianity, Divine Mercy and Divine Justice debating how best to bring the Christian back to his initial beliefs. The surprising thing is that, with the aid of the text and translation and the whole cast’s admirable delivery of it, even the sometimes lengthy recitatives are dramatic and engrossing for the listener.

Previous recordings of the work that I have heard have been clearly sung, but were orchestrally too heavy and wholly unconvincing in dramatic terms. Here the relatively small orchestra, clear textures and buoyant pacing convinces the listener that this is no dull oratorio but a genuinely dramatic work. This impression derives largely from approaching the work from the point of view of the earlier baroque rather than from that of the composer’s later works. Admittedly many of the young Mozart’s dramatic gestures are somewhat obvious, but as performed here they are always effective. None is more so than Mozart’s illustration of the Christian’s recollection of the inevitability of the Last Trumpet—last trombone in German—where he interrupts a recitative with a phrase on the alto trombone, and later uses the instrument as the obbligato in one of the Christian’s arias. The work is full of surprises and real dramatic punch. The whole cast are admirable even if without the libretto you might have some difficulty at times in distinguishing between the two tenors and the two sopranos. All sing with clarity and freshness, similar virtues to those displayed by the orchestra, and Ian Page’s pacing is unerringly convincing. The booklet with the set contains a useful introduction to the opera as well as a refreshingly unstilted translation of the libretto. Although it refers to a film on 'The making of the Recording' as being available on CD2 as a bonus feature I was unable to access it on my computer, although it can be seen on Classical Opera’s website.

I referred to Classical Opera’s first venture into recording Mozart as being a splendid version of an unfairly neglected work. I can only repeat and emphasise these words, and once again hope that Classical Opera will be able to continue their remarkable demonstration of the very considerable virtues of the composer’s earliest works.