Mozart: Last Masonic Works - Maag, Walter
Praga Digitals Reminiscences PRD/DSD 350 131
Classical - Vocal
Mozart: Laut verkünde unsre Freude*, K. 623 (Freimaurerkantate), Bundeslied*, K. 623a (Lasst uns mit geschlungnen Händen), The Magic Flute (overture), Requiem
Irmgard Seefried (soprano), Jennie Tourel (alto), Kurt Equiluz* & Leopold Simoneau (tenors), William Warfield (bass)
The Westminster Choir
Chor und Orchester der Wiener Volksoper*
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Bruno Walter & Peter Maag* (conductors)
Review by John Miller - January 31, 2018
In the eighteenth century, Freemasonry became associated with the humanitarian ideals of the Enlightenment in Western Europe. In the Austrian Empire, Freemasonry had been banned by Empress Maria Theresa in 1764. During the 1780’s, Emperor Joseph II, her successor, was tolerated but his successor, Emperor Leopold II, returned to suppression.
Mozart became a Mason during the calmer years of the 1780’s. On December 14, 1784, he was admitted as an Apprentice to the Viennese lodge named ‘Beneficence’. Mozart also often frequently attended at another lodge ‘True Concord’, the most visited for being the most prominent and aristocratic. It was there where he was raised to the Masonic second degree, that of ‘Journeyman’ (Jan 7, 1785), an apt description.
It is little known that Mozart’s father visited Vienna in that Spring, and followed his son by entering the ‘Beneficence’ lodge himself. Immediately gaining his ‘Apprentice’, his father rapidly became a full Mason, and then was aided by his age and professionalism to gain his Master Mason-ship on April 22, before returning to Salzburg. However, the surviving records of Wolfgang Amadeus are vague, but it seems that he did not become a Master Mason until the following year.
The present SACD from Praga Digitalis is from their ‘Reminiscences’ section, in which they have re-organised their historical Czech radio recordings made between 1959 and 1989, using DSD recording technology and SACD - only stereo and not multi-channel. Mozart produced about nine works for performance at gatherings of Masons; the earliest K.148 (1775-76) to K.623 and are chamber-like in their performers. They deal with items like “for the close of the lodge” but others deal with Enlightenment and its philosophy of Masons.
Musically, this SACD carries a version of the ‘Last Masonic Masterwork’, although not strictly all its items can be entitled as masterworks. Two of the chamber groups, The Little Masonic Cantata (K.623, 1971) and Mauregesang (K.623a, 1971) were composed in the year of Mozart’s death. These pieces were recorded in Vienna (1959) by the Chorus and Vienna Folk Opera, conducted by Peter Maag (1919-2001), a Swiss whose conducting mentors were Ernest Ansermet and Wilhelm Furtwängler. Maag also conducted ‘Mozart: the Complete Masonic Music on two CDs’ from VoxBox in 1991.
The six movements in K.623’s Little Cantata require 2 tenors, boy-soprano, bass/baritone, and an orchestra of flute, 2 oboes, 2 horns, 2 basset horns and strings. The whole ensemble plays the section with clarity and directness, on a theme which is opens march-like or lovely in quiet sections. Not surprising, the singers are playing emotionally as if in opera, especially in the chorus parts. There is quite a good front-back aural image showing the shape of the auditorium, but the arrangement of the three soloists sing loudly in positions 1-2-3 between your speakers and are very close. This artificial arrangement of players was often common to the early techniques of Stereo recording.
K.623a was a cantata which was published the following year (i.e. after Mozart’s death) with the title ‘Kleine Freimaurer’, to raise money for “his distressed widow and orphans”. The opening and closes of this work are identical, and the solos and chorus were as in K.623a. Interesting, the K.623 and 623a main them became Austria’s National Anthem. Under Maag the solo tenors and a bass all sounded beautifully, supported by an organ; essentially joyful and with good spreading of soloists around the stage as can in Stereo.
Moving on from some directly aimed Masonic works, filled with ritual and symbolism, we can see that Mozart’s final masterpiece was a playful but profound look at man's search for love and his struggle to attain wisdom and virtue. This applied to the opera ‘K.620 Die Zauberflöte’ (The Magic Flute), produced in1791. Both Mozart and the opera's librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, were devoted Freemasons, at a time when the Masonic order was frowned upon by the authorities and mistrusted by the public. To illustrate for this disc, Praga Digitalis begins the opening of the SACD with The Magic Flute overture conducted by the great Bruno Walter with the New York City, recorded 10th and 12th March 1956.
The overture begins with chords of deep sadness - directly a tribute to the Masonic themes of the opera (three being an important symbolic number). Then it is a fleet-footed five minutes until the end, treating us to fugue, transformation and delightful instrumental playfulness. But it is stopped before the end, a repeat of the three solemn chords of the opening. Playing is good here; I particularly liked a bassoon playing who seemed to chuckle all the way. The recording is quite reasonable, ambience being used to give a sense of the concert hall, not bad for stereo.
The finale of this SACD is the Requiem in D minor, K.626. In 1791 Mozart was acting as an ardent Mason, helped by his assistant and pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Also he became deeply involved in the Walsegg family in their castle; Count Franz von Walsegg commissioned a piece for a Requiem service to commemorate the anniversary of his wife's death on 14 February. Mozart composed part of the Requiem in Vienna in late 1791, but it was unfinished at his death on 5 December the same year. A completed version dated 1792 by Franz Xaver Süssmayr was delivered to Count Franz von Walsegg. If you want to understand the whole of the Requiem, you can read the article in the disc’s booklet (no indication of author) which is detailed and informative – except that this is printed in a font which I can only describe as “tiny”.
Mozart gave the specification for the work as: soprano, alto, tenor & bass solos and chorus (Westminster Choir); 2 violins, 2 viola, 2 basset horn (tenor of the clarinet family), 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and continuo. Nowadays, to match the usual four-part chorus the relatively small list of instruments is increased, particularly in the strings.
The Mozart-Süssmayr Requiem is one of the most talked-about pieces of Classical music. Nothing feels timid or conservative about Mozart’s Requiem; trumpets, trombones and timpani suggesting the tenets of Masonry in the score. To some, it seems to suggest performances that was remarkably passionate and fiery, breaking with the restraint of the classical period, while others are restricted and emotionally restrained in a religious way, obeying the Latin text’s plea for peace and eternal rest. A contemporary critic, Karl Schumann said, “Bruno Walter understands the Requiem logically as Catholic church music, as a musical interpretation of the liturgy and thus banishes thoughts about a ‘swansong elegy’”.
So how does this recording of the Requiem from Praga Digitalis sound, as recorded 10th and 12th March 1956? Surprisingly, the sound for the Requiem is not good, compared with the sonics of The Magic Flute on Track 1. Overall, the sound is tightly at the front centre, Like a narrow mono, and there is little or no sense of a room or hall behind the performers. There is little attempt to obey dynamics as instructed in the score. The strings are distinctly harsher of tone as they get louder, changing with bright or sizzling distortion the higher they go – gritty harshness at crescendo. This distortion also extends to the louder high notes in the chorus, and also apply high notes by the Soprano and Alto. Another recording problem is external noise – a sound like a distant wind plus a rumble sounding while playing or singing in the hall. This can also be heard during the wait between movements and at time it muddle some orchestration.
Certainly one can be somewhat upset by this recording when listening to Bruno Walter’s marshalling of his solos, orchestra and chorus. Aside to the effects of recording, it is clear that Walter was one of the conductors who illuminated Mozart’s Requiem with Masonic passion and fire. Soprano soloist Irmgard Seefried (1919-1988) agrees this too and sings wonderfully in her part, reminding me that she was one of the finest diverse singers of her age, taking the soprano part in Mozart’s Requiem conducted by Walter a number of times. It is almost worth buying this SACD just to hear her.
Clearly the recordings on this disc change in various ways in the tracks, some better than others. I have mentioned these above. I listened using an Oppo reader and a Denon AVR-x4000 reciever/amplifier. The Denon allows listeners to pass the incoming signals directly (“Pure” - used for this review work), or another which can use the Dolby Pro Logic llx decoder to reproduce dynamic 5.1-channel surround sound from 2-channel sources, enveloping with surrounded ambience, making the tracks sound much more natural. Unfortunately, Praga Digitalis gives little information about the DSD.
I certainly wouldn’t buy this SACD as favourite in my collection just for the Requiem, because of the oddities of its recording. The booklet was good in one respect; it has detailed accounts of Masonics in Vienna and the unfinished Requiem of Mozart, together with some examples of the Masonic Mozart – and there are Irmgard Seefried (Soloist) and Bruno Walter with fine biographies. Peter Maag’s life is not even mentioned. These booklets are all in English, except for a small final sum-up in French. All the text in the booklet is printed with a very small font, the smallest I have seen in a CD booklet, so most people with glasses will have discomforts. Total time 78:31.
The best thing about this SACD is that it offers good, interesting knowledge of how Mozart’s musical end as his health gradually lost hold, supported by very good musical performances. But it is a pity that sound engineers of 1956 sessions appears to be making stereo experiments in the recording of their Requiem!
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