24 March 2014

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – REQUIEM, K. 626 (Dunedin Consort; Linn Records CKD 449)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - REQUIEM, K. 626 (Linn Records CKD 449)

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Requiem in D minor, K. 626 (Reconstruction of the first public performance using the completion of the score by Franz Xaver Süßmayr), ‘Misericordias domini’ in D minor, K. 222 (‘Offertorium de tempore’)—Joanne Lunn, soprano; Rowan Hellier, mezzo-soprano; Thomas Hobbs, tenor; Matthew Brook, bass-baritone; Dunedin Consort; John Butt, conductor [Recorded at Greyfriar’s Kirk, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK, 15 – 19 September 2013; Linn Records CKD 449; 1 SACD, 61:39; Available from Linn Records, Amazon, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​Few cornerstone works in the Western choral canon are as frequently mishandled as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Requiem, and few composers of any degree of consequence are as uniformly but unjustly maligned as Franz Xaver Süßmayr. The Requiem has fallen victim to more than two centuries of mystery, misconception, and cinematic flights of fancy, accumulating a trove of traditions that forms a provocative but musically malignant mythology. There is an undeniable Romantic appeal to the almost certainly apocryphal notion of the somewhat delusional, perhaps already terminally ill, and unaccountably destitute Mozart accepting the commission to compose what he perceived as his own Requiem. Perhaps it is the envious pleasure of seeing genius laid low by mediocrity that draws curious minds to the Requiem, or maybe it is the heartening recognition of the triumph of Art over adversity. The impetus for the continuing endeavor to elevate the circumstances of the composition of Mozart's Requiem to heights of Shakespearean tragedy may also arise from the reluctance to concede that the genesis of something so beautiful and enduring could have been ordinary, even commercial, but it should not be overlooked that, to the savvy but struggling Mozart, it was the natural order of things for the creations of masterpieces to be business transactions. Whatever the true nature of its inception, the Requiem was a debt that was never fully paid by the Wunderkind from Salzburg, and where adulation of the departed Mozart ends indictment of the hand that dared to pollute the Master's manuscript with complementary scribbling begins: his long acquaintance with his tutor’s compositional style notwithstanding, Süßmayr's principal crime is not being Mozart. It is a hard thing to forgive, especially when virtually anyone with a modicum of musical training or intuition can with relative ease differentiate the 'authentic' pages from the 'imposter' portions of the Requiem. The conundrum is that composers who fancied themselves far more gifted than Süßmayr have proved less successful than their unassuming forebear in fitting Mozart's torso with Requiem limbs of their own creation. Among a gaggle of Frankenstein's monsters, Süßmayr's musical Prometheus remains the most effective. If not submersed in the tide of genius itself, Süßmayr's completion of the Requiem at least reflects genius upon its surface. The truth that is only reluctantly admitted is that the Requiem is far from Mozart's finest or most coherent work, but, being inseparable from the dolorous legacy of a great artist dying too young, it is a work of rage, resignation, and retribution and a score that has influenced every subsequent generation of composers. Seeking to strip away the grime of all the well-meaning hands that have molested the score since Mozart laid down his pen in 1791, this new recording by Dunedin Consort fascinatingly focuses on presenting the Requiem as it was heard in complete form at its first public performance in Vienna’s Jahn-Saal in January 1793. It is a vindication for Süßmayr, whose devotion to his extraordinary teacher is evident in every bar of his completion of the Requiem. It is also an engrossing opportunity to take a seat in Vienna’s Michaelerkirche in December 1791, when those who loved him said ‘Lebewohl’ to Mozart and ‘Wilkommen’ to the first breaths of his Requiem.

Performances of the Requiem featuring period instruments and smaller choral ensembles have become common during the past quarter-century, but this performance by Dunedin Consort and their Musical Director John Butt cuts a new path through the thicket of theories and customs that has long obscured the genuine spirit of the Requiem. Having proved themselves in performances and recordings of music by Bach and Händel to be virtuosi whose musicality is reliably matched by enthusiasm for the music they play, the instrumentalists of Dunedin Consort exceed their own highest standards with the excellence of their playing in this performance of Mozart’s Requiem. Bolstered by the stylish but never obtrusive keyboard playing of Robert Howarth, the Consort play each movement of the Mass with a tonal blend carefully constructed to match the mood of the text. The twenty string players produce sounds of consistent beauty, complemented by especially fine playing of the basset horns, trumpets, and bassoons. The trombones in ‘Tuba mirum spargens sonum’ are magnificently resonant and secure of intonation, qualities that have been heard in far too few performances of the Requiem. This is not a score of enormous difficulty, but the Dunedin Consort players do not make the mistake made by many ensembles of taking the score’s challenges for granted. Enjoyably accomplished as the Consort’s technical execution of Mozart’s music is, it is the unmistakable emotional connection with the score that is the most exceptional achievement of the Consort’s playing. Responding to Maestro Butt’s unaffected direction, the Consort infuse their playing with a muted sadness that does not prevent sunbeams of humor from emerging from the orchestral textures. The broad intensity of the ‘Dies irae, dies illa,’ ‘Rex tremendae majestatis,’ and ‘Confutatis maledictis’ is stirring, all the more so for the ways in which it contrasts with the majesty of the ‘Tuba mirum spargens sonum’ and the serenity of the ‘Recordare, Jesu pie.’ The radiant solemnity of the ‘Lacrimosa dies illa’ is shaped with inherent grace by Maestro Butt and accompanied with sparkling eloquence. Orchestral doubling of voices in fugal passages is managed with ideal balance, and both Maestro Butt’s leadership and the Consort’s playing are scaled to ensure that Süßmayr’s passages are given the same diligent elegance as Mozart’s. Even in the most expansively-orchestrated passages, Maestro Butt and Dunedin Consort approach the score with the refinement of chamber players, and the resulting fusion of grandeur with intimacy serves the music ideally.

The Dunedin Consort choristers give a performance of their music that is no less ideal than the playing of their instrumentalist colleagues. From the first choral entry in the ‘Requiem aeternam,’ the choristers—sixteen in number, including the four soloists—capture the nuances of every turn of phrase with insightful but never overwrought poignancy. The contrapuntal passages that owe much to the models of Bach and Händel, in performances of whose music these singers excel, are delivered with panache, but it is the spiritual directness of the choral singing that is its most rewarding trait. There is never a sense of a group of singers going through the motions of performing an impersonal musical masterpiece. Rather, the choristers respond to every sentiment in Mozart’s—and Süßmayr’s—music with alertness and obviously genuine affection, lending every passage emotional immediacy that charms and inspires. In a similar vein to Dunedin Consort’s Baroque repertoire, there is ample evidence of historical precedent for the soloists emerging from the choir, and this recording succeeds as few others in recent memory have done by offering a quartet of soloists who are thoroughly involved in the performance rather than an ensemble of busy singers collecting paychecks and padding their discographies between operatic engagements. Praising individual moments in the performances given by soprano Joanne Lunn, mezzo-soprano Rowan Hellier, tenor Thomas Hobbs, and bass-baritone Matthew Brook would be to overlook a thousand more. The poise and security of Ms. Lunn’s singing are splendid, and her upper register rings out gorgeously without forcing or operatic preening. Ms. Hellier’s fruity timbre melds well with Ms. Lunn’s, and she, too, sings with superb control and composure. Mr. Hobbs sings with the finesse of the young Schreier and the golden tone of the mature Wunderlich, and he adorns the performance with a standard-setting account of the tenor part. Mr. Brook has the fullness in his lower register to bring true power to his descending phrases in the ‘Tuba mirum spargens sonum,’ and throughout the performance his singing provides an unshakable foundation for the solo quartet. In the Requiem and the ‘Offertorium de tempore,’ Mozart’s 1775 setting of the Psalm text ‘Misericordias domini in aeternum cantabo’ that uncannily prefigures the principal theme of the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the singing is highly cultivated but also lovingly visceral. Rather than merely singing notes, these sixteen individuals give a performance that pulses with timeless humanity.

Hearing this recording of Mozart’s Requiem has the effect of encountering a great work of art for the first time, not from the perspective of history but with the fresh insights of new acquaintance. Mozart’s widow having engaged his pupil Süßmayr in the completion of the Requiem was undoubtedly an effort at finalizing a commercial enterprise, the proceeds from which were likely sorely needed by the composer’s surviving family, but the unflattering portrait that history has painted of Constanze Mozart does not obstruct appreciation of her recognition of her husband’s genius and the lasting importance of his work. It is a lofty goal to which this recording aspires, but the integrity of the artists involved ensures that the performance is never bogged down by scholarship. Musically, this is an incredibly satisfying performance of Mozart’s Requiem. On a deeper level, however, this is a performance that, by returning the work to the contexts of its infancy, reminds the listener why the music of Mozart will be played as long as there are human ears to be enraptured by it.