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Moving Mozartean Torso at Strathmore

The decision to "complete" the work of a major composer is always controversial, even more so when the composer is Mozart. On Saturday the National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorale, Strathmore's in-house ensembles, presented what was billed as Robert Levin's "completion" of the incomplete C Minor Mass, K. 427. Mr. Levin, a skilled performer and musical sleuth, has won a lot of praise (though not universal) for his version of the Mozart Requiem and is well known for his recordings of Mozart and Beethoven concerti on fortepiano. Based on the satisfying Strathmore rendition, the job was well done, even if there will always be room for doubt.

The Mozart-Levin product should rightly be called a "performing edition" of the Mass (comparable to various "performing editions" of Mahler's 10th Symphony, which is rather more complete in the composer's own hand than is K. 427). Mozart wrote what we have in 1782-83, mid-career, and never returned to complete it. What there is is so good that we are surprised: for the same reason, filling out this torso of top-flight Mozart is a daunting task indeed.

Levin's "complete" version does flow nicely. On the other hand, I perceived a falling-off in inspiration: as the work progressed Levin's interpolations became more dominant (in fairness, Levin scrupulously adapted as much contemporaneous Mozart, including fragments linked in by the existing autograph materials, to minimize his own compositional contribution). Levin's bouncy, concluding "Dona Nobis" rounded things off crisply, but seemed to me a bit lighthearted for this piece.

Yet that may be the key to this mystery. Mozart may have gotten bored with the work and, his own inspiration flagging, may have set it aside. Indeed it would be hard for any composer to sustain the level of excellence of the opening Kyrie and Gloria, with magnificent writing for the two soprano soloists -- here the rising talent Christina Major, who replaced the scheduled Mary Wilson, and the veteran Elizabeth Bishop. The ladies stole the show for sure, their voices contrasting and blending to excellent effect. If Ms. Major has the cooler, more focused tone, Ms. Bishop has warmth, spot-on delivery, and an almost fruity, mango-like richness. Both endowed with sizeable voices, they delivered the goods for Mozart.

The National Philharmonic Chorale (rather large) and Orchestra (scaled down for Mozart) did a fine job, producing a nice sound, not very 18th century but never overblown either. The Chorale as heard did blur some of Mozart's contrapuntal lines -- the Mass being one of his more fugue-happy creations -- in Strathmore's warm acoustic. Conductor Stan Engebretson, music director for the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, kept the work moving along without understating its gravity (trombones, as in the Requiem, adding a somber note), though a bit more variation in dynamics wouldn't have hurt. Tenor Alan Bennett, accurate but with a rather small voice, and bass Kurt Loft Willett did well enough with their modest parts, handily eclipsed by the ladies.

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