MOZART: Ave Verum Corpus, K. 618; Requiem, K. 626; Per questa bella mano, K. 612 – Elizabeth Watts, soprano/ Phyllis Pancella, mezzo-soprano/ Andrew Kennedy, tenor / Eric Owens, bass-baritone/ Robert Nairn, double bass obbligato/ Harry Christophers/ Handel and Haydn Society – Coro COR16093 [Distr. by Allegro], 53:59 ***:
While Berlioz was working on his Requiem in 1837, he wrote to his sister Adèle about the project and cited the two most significant models for such a work at the time: “I will no doubt be accused of being addicted to innovation because I would like to give this domain of art an ingenuous expression, from which Mozart and Cherubini, it seems to me, were often far removed. I am making terrifying associations which fortunately have never been attempted, and of which I deem myself to have the initial idea.” Berlioz is probably, himself, being a little disingenuous here because he undoubtedly got some ideas from the Dies Irae of Cherubini’s C Minor Requiem, with its striking use of the tam-tam and its dark seething energy.
But Berlioz seems to me right about the Mozart Requiem. While it has passages of solemn grandeur and great beauty of expression, Mozart doesn’t seem intent on capturing the terrors of the Day of Judgment. We know from his writings that, sustained by his faith, he felt death held no horrors for him. Of course, as Dr. Johnson was supposed to have said, the prospect of a man’s imminent death “concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Mozart seems to have been superstitiously rattled by the messenger in black who commissioned the Requiem for an unknown patron. (This unknown turned out, disappointingly for those who like a good story, to be one Count Franz von Walsegg, an amateur composer notorious for passing off the work of others as his own, which he wanted to do with the Requiem.) With Mozart’s health in constant decline as he worked on the Requiem, it’s natural that he had fatalistic feelings about the piece. But the Dies Irae, which Berlioz makes truly unsettling, has a Classical restraint, or at least a Classical rigor, about it, while the Tuba mirum, where Berlioz unleashes his four brass choirs and eight timpanists, in Mozart has the quiet dignity and Italianate grace of one of his concert arias. The finest parts—the solemn, slow-treading Introitus and the achingly sad Lacrimosa—make no big noises.
That said, in this live recording from Boston, Harry Christophers seems bent on bringing the greatest amount of drama he can to the work. That impression is reinforced by the usual adrenalin that flows through a performance before a live audience and by a recording that is close up and very dry. In the notes to the recording, Christophers makes much of Boston Symphony Hall’s outstanding acoustics, but there’s little evidence of the warm inviting ambience of the place. This has some unfortunate side effects, including exposing the rough playing of the trombones. In fact, there’s a rough-edged quality to the orchestral playing that, as I hinted, doesn’t square with my aural image of the work. However, the singing of Christopher’s well-prepped chorus is top-notch, as you’d expect.
As far as the soloists are concerned, there are the usual slight problems with tuning that are an artifact of live performance, but mostly the performances are very decent; the reliable Elizabeth Watts sings beautifully for the most part (though she swallows a few of her lowest notes). But I’m just not a fan of Eric Owens’s performance. He has a suitably big resonant bass but also a quavery sort of vibrato that compromises his work in the Requiem and in the unusual bonus item, the aria Per questa bella mano, written for members of Emanuel Schikaneder’s theater company.
Christopher’s dramatically charged approach to the score is compelling. However, with well over a hundred other recordings of the Requiem available, the vicissitudes of live performance place this one well shy of the top ranks.
French Romantic and Impressionism… Ivan Ilich