This splendid new CD from Naxos offers excellent performances of two of Mozart's lesser-known works: the cantata (not oratorio, as the CD cover suggests) Davide penitente, K.469, and the Regina coeli, K. 108.
Stanley Sadie once wrote that 'no substantial work of Mozart's maturity has been as consistently neglected by writers on the composer as his cantata Davide penitente', and on the basis of this stylish performance one can only agree that the piece deserves more attention. History has judged the work unfairly on the basis that of its ten movements, only two are completely original. The other eight are based on parts of the unfinished C minor Mass, K.427, specifically the 'Kyrie' and 'Gloria', though Davide only uses about two-thirds of the music from the Mass.
The text of Davide penitente is possibly by Lorenzo da Ponte, but that belief is based largely on conjecture: Mozart and Da Ponte knew each other from 1783 but Davide was written in 1785 and predates the three Da Ponte operas.
Critical opinion of the work varies; whilst it's obvious that the music for the recycled movements is not a direct response to the text of Davide penitente, Mozart did make some small changes to certain of the vocal lines, and (contrary to what the CD liner notes claim) the words were carefully written to fit the existing music as strongly as possible. Mozart wrote two new arias for the cantata, one for the tenor in B flat major ('A te, fra tanti affanni'), the other for the first soprano in C minor ('Tra l'oscure ombre funeste'). The latter was written for Caterina Cavalieri, Mozart's first Constanze, the former for Johann Adamberger, the original Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail; however, comparisons between 'Tra l'oscure ombre funeste' and Constanze's 'Martern aller Arten' are somewhat fatuous, given that the aria from Davide starts in a much darker C minor and only later moves onto a brighter coloratura passage compared to the ten-minute bravura aria in C major from Die Entführung.
The other major change to the C minor Mass material is the addition of a forty-six-bar solo episode in the manner of a cadenza, ten and a half bars before the end of the entire work. The soloists and wind enter into dialogue with the strings, then the soloists are each given eight bars of showcase music before the three come together and the piece finishes in the same way as the 'Jesu Christe' from the Mass, on which it is based.
This superlative performance by the Leipziger Kammerorchester under Morten Schuldt-Jensen is now easily a first choice for anyone wanting to hear this piece on record. Schuldt-Jensen shapes the progress of the work very carefully, with a gentle tempo and thin texture (one can easily hear the harpsichord) for the opening movement 'Alzai le flebili voci al Signor' succeeded by bolder playing in the Allegro vivace second movement, 'Cantiam le glorie e le lodi'. Kristina Wahlin is an excellent second soprano soloist in the fiendishly difficult 'Lungi le cure ingrate', nimble on her feet even when leaping up two octaves from an A below middle C to a high A; her vibrato is particularly well controlled, aiding expression but eschewing the temptation to give the aria an overly Romantic performance. Lothar Odinius is the tenor soloist, excelling himself in the extraordinary aria 'A te, fra tanti affanni', whose imaginative woodwind writing and numerous chromatic inflections point towards Don Giovanni and the Requiem. Trine Wilsberg Lund is perhaps the strongest of the three, attacking the first soprano's challenging 'Tra l'oscure ombre funeste' with both a fiery temperament and a bright quality in her voice.
The choir, Immortal Bach Ensemble, sings with unusual sensitivity towards small details, for instance observing slurs and detached notes in the opening and closing chorus. Conductor Schuldt-Jensen manages to avoid too dense a sound in the concluding fugue thanks to his reduced orchestral and choral forces, and always observes tempo indications with care. The trio 'Tutti le mie speranze' is a particular highlight, with the steady speed allowing the canonic entries of the three soloists to be observed with precision. The mood and atmosphere of this entire performance is a good mixture of interpreting the text in as vivid a way possible within the boundaries of period performance practice.
A twelve-minute bonus comes in the form of the Regina coeli, K. 108. On his Italian tour of 1770-1, Mozart stopped off in Bologna to study counterpoint with Padre Martini. The Regina coeli is one of the products of this visit, an efficient four-movement work dated May 1771 on the autograph. This performance captures its lively, fresh characteristics well and caps a highly enjoyable little disc, available at bargain price as always.