If only Mozart could’ve been there! Had he only one concert to attend from beyond the grave, Wolfgang could have done worse than head to Coventry Cathedral and its sumptuous acoustic on Saturday night. Here he would have been treated to a performance of his final symphony, no.41 ‘Jupiter’ – never heard in his lifetime – alongside his 'Great' Mass in C minor – which he never completed. I would be particularly fascinated to have seen his reaction to the mass, which is roughly 50% the creation of musicologist Robert D. Levin, constructed/composed from sketches and anecdotal evidence of Mozart’s plan with one movement created from scratch. Levin’s project was a commission for the Carnegie Hall where it received its premier in 2005.

Coventry Cathedral, © Cmglee
Coventry Cathedral,
© Cmglee

The evening began with a meditative choral piece on the theme of peace: Da Pacem Domine (befitting the concert’s raison d’etre as the closing event of the Cathedral’s Peace Festival) by Arvo Pärt. Pärt is an incredibly popular composer considering that he does not hold the unenviable accolade, held by most other popular composers, of being dead. His unique compositional technique ‘tintinnabuli’ is based on the sound of bells and the harmonic series, and creates a reflective, engaging and deeply spiritual soundworld. Singing from the rear of the church and with split male and female sections, the Saint Michael’s Choir performed this piece superbly. The haunting effect of close, discordant harmony opening up to uplifting consonance achieved a physical reaction in the audience, a collective shudder, which marked this opening piece as the highlight of the evening. The particularly reverberant acoustic helped the singers create this almost tangible sound – a real treat.

On to Mozart’s last symphony, the 'Jupiter’. This magisterial piece, written in 1788, represents the culmination of Mozart’s symphonic output. There is much confusion about why the last three symphonies were written, as there is no known correspondence that mentions them. Perhaps, due to Mozart’s waning popularity at the end of his life, they were written without a performance in mind and would be used to try and generate interest elsewhere in Europe, possibly in England where German composers led by Haydn, ‘father of the Symphony’, had found particular success in the genre.

This was a concert dominated by the space in which it was performed, in that while the acoustic helped the choir to open the concert, the ESO found it distinctly more difficult playing the symphony. The thematic repeating chords that open the piece really must be crisp and in this acoustic where the sound rings on for 6-8 seconds these moments lost their drama almost entirely. There were some beautiful moments; the strings achieved a marvellous sound particularly in their quiet, solo passages and woodwind made a monumental effort to put across the clipped articulation of this first movement. The second movement was taken at a languorous tempo that, in combination with the mushy acoustic, gave the bizarre impression of an orchestra playing in slow motion, conductor moving with the pained effort of a sprinter immersed in treacle. However, the extended pauses took on a powerful drama and as the orchestra began to bed in, dynamic contrast became apparent and really effective; toward the end of the movement the orchestra created a powerful sound. The third and fourth movements were performed consummately; Paul Leddington Wright was now squeezing a much tighter, rhythmically lilting sound from the players, putting to bed the earlier problems with timing. It is just a shame that so much of the detail was lost in the acoustic.

After a painfully long interval orchestra and choir combined to perform the Mass. Immediately this piece imposed itself on the audience, the choir were on great form, crisp, powerful and responsive to Leddington Wright’s dynamic commands. The Kyrie knocked the socks off all who listened, in no small part to the wonderful entry of soprano Helen-Jane Howells – a ringing note cutting above all the orchestras fuss and choir’s pathos – another goose-pimple moment. Sadly, the overall effect of the piece was not quite so uplifting. There were moments of pure sonic beauty – the intimate cadenza in the Credo with obbligato flute, bassoon and oboe blending beautifully with Zoë Bonner’s soft sounding soprano. But the piece is a little flabby, dare I say ‘rambly’. I wonder how much my reservations about the piece are the result of an unusual listening experience: in the knowledge that so much of the music was not written by Mozart’s hand, one can’t help but listen out for the reconstructed sections to ‘hear the difference’. I suppose this is a vanity-riddled and ultimately pointless attempt to test one's ears for recognition of the ‘Mozartian’ sound, and distracts from listening to the (very well played) music. I guess, as food tastes better when we know what’s in it, music sounds better when we know precisely who wrote it.

***11