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The prince of Saltzbourg, not crediting that such masterly compositions were really those of a child, shut him up for a week, during which he was not permitted to see any one, and was left only with music paper, and the words of an oratorio.
During this short time he composed a very capital oratorio, which was most highly approved of upon being performed.
Musicologists believe that the short cantata Grabmusik was the result of this challenge, and although there is no definitive documentary proof for this assumption, it is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable works of Mozart’s prodigious childhood.
The performance during Holy Week of a scenic oratorio before an image or relief of the tomb of Christ is a convention of medieval origin that survives in parts of southern Germany to this day. Grabmusik, which can be translated as ‘Cantata on Christ’s Grave’ (literally ‘Grave Music’), is thought to have been first performed in Salzburg Cathedral during Holy Week 1767. The anonymous text takes the form of a dialogue between a tormented soul, who is desperately lamenting the tragedy of Christ’s death, and an angel. When the work was revived in the mid-1770s, Mozart added a final recitative and chorus, but this recording preserves the original’s taut intensity by ending with the conciliatory duet between the Soul and the Angel.
The Soul’s opening aria is a piece of staggering turbulence and force, and Mozart probably never wrote anything more challenging and virtuosic for the bass voice. Repeated staccato high F sharps, cascading triplets and jagged octave leaps combine to evoke a frenzied exhortation to Nature to break itself asunder in the wake of Christ’s death, and the orchestra already makes a pivotal contribution to the dramatic soundscape; the short middle section even manages to heighten the tension still further, shifting from D major to D minor and diving headlong into harmonies of startling adventurousness.
This visceral outburst is answered astutely and sympathetically by the Angel, firstly in a short recitative and then in a tender G minor aria full of compassion and warmth. Particularly effective, and affecting, is the way the music suddenly breaks off mid-phrase before melting into the final adagio, in which the Angel urges the Soul to calm his fury and dissolve into penitence.
This is followed by a second recitative for the Soul, this time accompanied by the full string section to suggest the slow dawning of comfort and hope in his mind, and this in turn leads into the redemptive final duet, in which the Soul is gradually drawn into the Angel’s consoling, healing and ultimately uplifting power. With this remarkable yet curiously little-known work, the young Mozart already shows himself to be capable of transforming a drily didactic religious text into a work of considerable emotional and dramatic scope, and if this was indeed the piece composed in response to Archbishop Schrattenbach’s test, it was surely a test that Mozart passed with flying colours.
from notes by Ian Page © 2018
|Mozart: Grabmusik & Bastien und Bastienne|
As far as can be ascertained, this recording presents the first performance of Mozart’s original setting of 'Bastien und Bastienne' since its single performance at the home of the Dr Mesmer who commissioned it 250 years ago. Both works here were w ...» More