At Worcester Cathedral last Friday, the main topic of conversation prior to the Three Choirs Festival evening concert concerned the curious combination of Mozart’s Mass in C minor and Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony. Speculations as to possible connections were flying fairly liberally, though by concert’s end, two hours later, one was left unable to cite very much more than their shared exuberance.

Gillian Keith and Katharine Fuge © Michael Whitefoot
Gillian Keith and Katharine Fuge
© Michael Whitefoot

In Mozart’s case this is rather an odd word to use. At least, it is as the opening seven minutes of the Mass play out. Though grandiose, this is surely one of the most solemn settings of the Kyrie ever committed to paper. Composed in 1782–3 (and ultimately left substantially incomplete), it would be the best part of a decade before Mozart’s attention would turn to the Requiem, but one catches more than a glimpse of that work’s profound gravity in the funereal, plodding procession of this Kyrie. If anything it’s reinforced by the sublime central Christe eleison soprano solo, a melody of such immaculate beauty that its subsequent return to the black cortege from which it sprang makes for a devastating contrast. This is remarkable music, but as an overture for what’s to come it rings surprisingly false. Thereafter, Mozart adopts an altogether more upbeat, demonstrably positive tone that leaves one wondering where on earth those opening few minutes came from – or, indeed, where they went (it brings to mind Bruckner’s Mass in D minor, where a similar situation exists).

Though the Kyrie received a lukewarm performance by the Three Choirs Festival Chorus and Philharmonia Orchestra under Adrian Partington – Katharine Fuge delivering a pleasant but weak solo – the same could not be said for the remainder of the work. One might almost call it a musical portrait of Mozart himself, equal parts elegance and cheek. Partington whipped up everyone for a thoroughly vigorous Gloria, soprano Gillian Keith displaying a distinct glint in her eye at Laudamus te, made yet more animated as Fuge joined her to form an exciting double act later on. It was more than mere froth; Partington made much of the heavyweight elements that remain, particularly the cuttingly persistent rhythmic motif that runs throughout Qui tollis, like an itch that won’t go away, choir and orchestra being driven relentlessly on like cogs in a machine. The Gloria’s closing fugue (Cum sancto spiritu) was mesmerisingly impressive; as with all Mozart’s fugues it loves the sound of its own counterpoint, though when the results are as rousing as this, who’s to complain?

Partington elicited from the orchestra a distinct chamber music sound in the Credo, which proved beautifully effective. Fuge outdid herself here, demonstrating stunning control over Mozart’s huge melismas with only a few wind instruments for support. Even when reduced like this, though, the music never flagged, Partington’s arms furiously wheeling around to keep the momentum going right to the very end, practically crashing through the buffers of the Sanctus into the work’s dramatic, rip-roaring final Hosanna.

The back-and-forth segmentation of the Mass in C minor is tough to make convincing over the large scale, and even if this performance couldn’t resolve that challenge, it certainly made it immaterial beside the stately majesty and free-wheeling frivolity that filled the cathedral.

The Philharmonia plays Shostakovich © Michael Whitefoot
The Philharmonia plays Shostakovich
© Michael Whitefoot

The difficulties with Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 12 in D minor are rather more straightforward: first, simply to keep going, and second, how to prevent the piece from sounding like it’s moving round and round in circles. Subtitled “The Year 1917”, commemorating the events of the October Revolution (and dedicated to Lenin), the music is akin to a dog chasing its tail, embedding quotations from revolutionary songs to create an obsessive melody that swiftly moves away from dignity to exuberance. In some respects, it’s Shostakovich at his most familiar, and the Philharmonia clearly couldn’t get enough of the work’s full orchestral galloping, woodwinds flying in all directions. Aside from such unchecked ebullience, Partington made the comparatively rare episodes of restrained intimacy sublimely lyrical. The slow movement in particular was lugubrious and ghostly, exquisitely moving, turning vaporous in an almost inaudible conclusion.

But that’s not what you take away from a performance of this piece. It’s the inescapable, unstoppable full-throttle juggernaut that subsequently reignites and picks up where the opening left off. Partington made the third movement a deliciously portentous tease, a kind of polite four-minute warning, before unleashing a truly unbridled blazing finale. Triumph for Shostakovich always was a conflicted thing, here manifested in the exultant Philharmonia continually glancing off their supposedly final cadences in a mess of dissonances. Nothing is unstoppable, though, and as if to prove the point Partington made the symphony’s climactic closing bars so final that they practically punched holes through the walls. The concert didn’t so much end as explosively blow itself out.

****1