Mozart’s “Great” C minor Mass, for my money his most convincing choral work, is at turns terrifying and rapturous. It is a piece of sublime virtuosity that finds Mozart at an exponential level of creativity thanks to some timely Baroque inspiration. Conductor Laureate Zubin Mehta, who is not known for his Mozart, much less Mozart’s choral works, took a stab at this sumptuous target with the LA Phil

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Zubin Mehta
© Photo provided courtesy of the LA Phil

The success of the evening largely rested on the shoulders of the LA Master Chorale who gave an exemplary performance. Pared down to a total of 56 voices, they still managed a thunderous sonority. As is there wont, they were dynamic and thrilling, always lending character and import to every sung note. Their consonants were sharp from the first fierce Kyrie. But it wasn’t just ferocity that made their performance thrilling, they managed exquisite restraint, a breathtaking sound of virtually nothing in moments such as the Gratias agimus tibi.

But it takes a chorus of extreme musical virtuosity to convey Mozart’s complexity of part writing and they were up to the task in the double choruses, particularly in Qui tollis. Disney Hall’s wondrous acoustic made the texture pop and enhanced their wonderful articulation. Likewise, the Sanctus fugue was glorious.

The quartet of soloists were outstanding. Brenda Rae sang a supremely confident Kyrie and was particularly sublime in Et incarnatus est. Hers is a steely soprano sound, but with plenty of warmth. Miah Persson has become something of a local favorite. An angelic stage presence, with a robust lyric soprano growing more sumptuous through the years, her Laudamus te was never in doubt. Tenor Attilio Glaser and bass-baritone Michael Sumuel were thoughtful contributors as well, despite their small parts. Sumuel has a particularly glowing sound.

Where the musicality from all the vocalists was well-prepared and executed, such was lacking of Mehta’s LA Phil players. A moderately-reduced size orchestra of some 40 strings, with violins placed antiphonally, they tended to play with the full bodied sound and weight of a less nimble group. Articulation was full-bore, leading to little dynamism and shaping within the phrases. For instance in the Et incarnatus est, the lovely obbligato parts were superbly played by the winds but did not give and take with the soloist over the playing of the rest of the orchestra resulting in a wash of sound. It was an incongruous performance between vocalists and orchestra.

Mehta conducts with a light touch in his advancing age. His tempos (for instance the Gloria) were often too moderate to let the music really take off and dance. His life’s work will make him a fixture for LA audiences as long as he wants and he deserves nothing less, and Mozart's music received a performance it deserved on Thursday evening, at least from the vocalists.