What can bring greater delight than being presented with a musical gift? Both Constanze Mozart and Alma Mahler were recipients of their respective husband’s ardour. In Constanze’s case the gift was the workings of a huge mass and a soprano role written for her own voice in mind, to celebrate their marriage and the birth of their first child. In a letter to his father in January 1783 Mozart made his only known reference to this work, picking up on his earlier stated intention to deliver a musical tribute and adding, “The score... is the best proof that I really made the promise.” In Alma’s case it was a single song, Liebst du um Schönheit, one of five that were to form a collection called the Rückert-Lieder (based on poems by Friedrich Rückert) and the only one that the composer himself never orchestrated.

Tanja Ariane Baumgartner © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

These five miniatures are not gaudy jewels that clamour for attention; they are like opalescent pearls that shimmer magically in the dark. These days some singers feel the need to clutch music-stands or massage their scores in comparatively standard repertory pieces. So Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, the mezzo soloist, is to be commended for singing from memory. But idiomatic diction and a velvety voice alone are not enough to unlock the Innigkeit of these very personal songs. What might just work in Wigmore Hall does not transfer at all easily to the open spaces of the Albert Hall. A statuesque figure, Baumgartner seemed to be communicating over wide stretches with the Arena and not the audience beyond; body language was minimal and there was insufficient acting with the voice. This was especially apparent in the second of the songs given here (Mahler never specified a particular order), Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder, which is the only one where irony is writ large. Too often the lack of projection in the voice meant that words were lost, and together with a cooler emotional temperature, not least in Um Mitternacht, which inhabits the dark hour of the soul, this meant there was little scope for any release. She was at her best in the final song, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, of which the composer once said “It is truly me.” Here the rich tones of her lower register were beautifully echoed in the hushed dynamics of the accompaniment provided by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Ilan Volkov.

Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Great composers are sometimes less than uniformly great. Leaving aside the obvious question – why didn’t Mozart finish what could easily have become a mass on a really grand scale, having cannibalised parts of the score for Davidde Penitente some years later – there remains the inescapable conclusion that his C minor work K427 is strangely uneven. It doesn’t always seem to know where it is going stylistically and the allocation of material to the solo voices displays a lack of potential. For instance, the tenor is heard in only two of the movements and the bass has little more than a walk-on part in the final Benedictus. The Mozart who was able to write so effectively for wind soloists in his piano concertos is curiously reticent here, reserving obbligato parts for flute, oboe and bassoon until the Et incarnatus est part of the Credo. The coloratura displays of considerable brilliance in the Laudamus te sound as though they have been inserted from an operatic work. And yet this is a work which has flashes of undoubted brilliance, as in the duet for sopranos in Domine deus, here expertly matched in the voices of Louise Alder and Carolyn Sampson. Above all, it is the writing for double chorus with fugal passages of enormous complexity which gives this mass its heft. How fortunate that the BBC Symphony Chorus were on such sterling form, producing passionate and committed singing in the Credo and plenty of crisp attack and full-bodied tone in the Sanctus. Volkov’s tempi occasionally raised an eyebrow, as in the “Qui tollis”, marked Largo but taken quite briskly, so that this work was done and dusted in a mere 50 minutes.

And was there a third gift of sorts in this concert? How satisfying it would have been to record a trio of great musical gifts borne by three wise men. Sadly, I remain unconvinced that Gèrard Grisey’s Dérives (or “drifts”), here receiving its UK première, either demonstrated that the composer had found “a personal style”, as the programme note would have us believe, or that Grisey belongs in the same illustrious company as the two other composers. Two orchestral groups start from an E flat and “drift” away, only to return to the home key at the end. The sound clusters largely derivative of Ligeti and approximations of electronic music could raise little enthusiasm in me.