Harry Christophers / Handel & Haydn Society

Mozart: Mass in C minor

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This album marks the recording debut of British conductor Harry Christophers with Boston's Handel & Haydn Society, and it looks as though the pairing has involved some beneficial stretching on both sides. For the chorus and orchestra, it's a bid for prominence matching the organization's venerable status. Founded in 1815, and once having commissioned a piece from Beethoven (he never delivered it), the group rests at the apex of the Boston musical family tree but has been only spottily represented on recordings. For Christophers the partnership likewise represented new challenges: a larger and somewhat more unwieldy group than his handpicked Sixteen in Britain, and the American system of private musical patronage, which, if you want to talk about historical authenticity, is closer to what Mozart had to deal with than anything in Britain these days would be. The first thing that may strike fans of the Sixteen is how different this recording sounds from the smooth choral releases that have carved out a place of Christophers on Britain's crossover-oriented Classic FM radio network. Taken from a 2010 live recording of Mozart's Mass in C minor, K. 427, made at Boston's Symphony Hall, the music lacks the characteristic Sixteen sheen. The spaces of the 2,500-seat hall seem to call for large dimensions that Christophers only intermittently delivers. Yet there are plenty of the virtues here that have made Christophers one of the most popular choral conductors in the world. In the dramatic opening of the Kyrie, with liberal application of tempo rubato, you get the feeling that the singers were stepping out onto the edge, and that's all to the good; it's a thrilling, electric moment. The achingly lyrical depiction of the crucifixion and burial of Christ (breaking off at this point in the Credo, for no reconstruction of the unfinished mass is offered) is another memorable passage. With the soloists Christophers runs counter to the general trend that emphasizes the score's operatic qualities; he fits the singers into a more intimate conception of the work, and they oblige nicely. The partnership of Harry Christophers and the Handel & Haydn Society may be a work in progress, but it may turn out to be a masterwork. Christophers' always engaging booklet notes are in English only; the Latin mass text is also translated into English.

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