Georg Muffat, one of my favourite composers of the Austrian baroque, was mainly a composer of instrumental music. However, he did write a few sacred vocal works, only one of which has survived – namely the present Mass whose autograph was at one time in the possession of Joseph Haydn. It's a sumptuous double-choir Mass in 24 vocal and instrumental parts, richly scored in the high baroque manner for two vocal and three instrumental choirs.
It is performed here by Cappella Murensis and Les Cornets Noirs, a substantial vocal and instrumental ensemble directed by Johannes Strobl, and the disc forms part of a series of recordings made by these forces in the excellent acoustic of the Abbey Church of Muri, Switzerland. They make the most of the massively-scored opening Sonata, delivered by a rich instrumental ensemble of cornetti, trombones, strings and continuo. Players and solo voices are excellent, the adult ripieno chorus sounding rather like a boys' choir but with excellent balance and not at all top-heavy.
The Kyrie sets the pattern for the rest of the Mass – in short sections, mostly lasting just a minute or two each, and contrasting in character and tempo. At all times Muffat's harmonic and melodic fluency are very much in evidence. Most of the texture is choral, with a handful of solo and concertante episodes. Personally I found that, in the present recording at least, the massive blocks of sound do become a little wearisome at times. There are some agreeable passages for solo voices – such as those for tenor in 'Et in unum Dominum' and for one for two sopranos in 'Et incarnatus est' – but these soon develop into choral passages. The Credo ends in a fine, noisy climax. There are also some short 'stile antico' sections, as in the Benedictus.
The Mass is then followed by five instrumental Sonatas by Bertali, Biber and Schmelzer. The first Bertali sonata (track 25) is an attractive multi-section work in the Italian style; the following piece by Biber, for strings and continuo, provides a nice contrast; Schmelzer's Sonata XII is a very finely scored piece rich in wind textures, and best of all is Bertali's brilliant closing 14-part Sonata. All these instrumental works are beautifully played and directed; in fact these works, for me at least, constitute the most enjoyable part of the programme. I can't help feeling that the whole disc would have sounded better if these instrumental pieces had been distributed among Muffat's Mass movements. But others may disagree, and in any case I'm not sure about the authenticity of such a practice.
The recording makes the most of the multi-choir interior space of the Klosterkirche Muri, and the booklet even has a diagram of the placement of choirs and instruments, together with annotations in the track listing to show where everyone is singing or playing from. Booklet notes are outstanding. There is no sung text provided, but in the case of a Mass setting this is not too much of a nuisance. The Muffat Mass has been recorded twice before – once by Konrad Junghänel and then, more recently, by Gunar Letzbor directing the St. Florianer Sängerknaben and Ars Antiqua Austria. I haven't heard Junghänel, but the one under Letzbor is also very fine and I would find it hard to choose between that and the present disc.