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Recordings

harmonia mundi 902291 [CD]
07 Nov 2017

Mozart’s Requiem: Pierre-Henri Dutron Edition

The stories surrounding Mozart’s Requiem are well-known. Dominated by the work in the final days of his life, Mozart claimed that he composed the Requiem for himself (Landon, 153), rather than for the wealthy Count Walsegg’s wife, the man who had commissioned it in July 1791.

Mozart: Requiem K.626

Sophie Karthäuser, Marie-Claude Chappuis, Maximilian Schmitt, Johannes Weisser. RIAS Kammerchor. Freiburger Barockorchester. René Jacobs.

harmonia mundi 902291 [CD]

$16.33  Click to buy

This sense of tension, of conflicting power and powerlessness, and ultimately of fear and awe at the prospect of death, is ever-present in this new release from Harmonia Mundi. Drama is never far from the surface in this recording, and if it at times perhaps verges on bombast, it certainly conveys the image of a composer facing death in the eye. This is a recording that conveys the fear and tension of this confrontation, but perhaps at the expense of the more poetic aspects of such a conflict.

The voices are immediately full-blooded and rich when they first appear in the opening adagio; the soprano’ first entry is sublime, soaring over the sensitive accompaniment of the Freiburger Barockorchester. Yet prettiness is never with us alone, and the ensemble are quick to emphasise the work’s darker nature by exaggerating the dynamic contrasts, as found in the sudden quiet in the centre of the Introitus: Requiem æternam. Throughout the disc, there is a fine balance achieved between high drama – achieved through crisp articulation and dynamic variety – and melodic sweetness. Indeed, one of the most unsettling features of Mozart’s Requiem may be its juxta-position of beauty with darkness; how can someone write such sublime music to express something that embodies such fear and unpredictability?

This sense of contrast is beautifully highlighted in this new release. When the sopranos and altos glide into the picture after the opening gravitas of the male voices in the Confutatis, the dynamic and timbral contrast is stunning. However, it does at times feel almost overblown, particularly with the tempo that Jacobs adopts here, a tempo noticeably faster than Marriner on Philips (Academy and Chorus of St Martin in the Fields, 1991). Marriner also manages to keep the dynamic quieter for longer in the latter half of the Confutatis, making the tension almost unbearable. Similarly, Karajan’s DG (Vienna Philharmonic, 1987) reading finds a greater hush at the opening of the Lacrimosa, making the prolonged crescendo more striking.  Despite the abrasive aggression of the Confutatis and the missed opportunity for genuine quiet in the Lacrimosa, it is impossible not to feel swept away by the sheer force of nature of both the score and the performance here, this force brilliantly communicating the overwhelming nature of death.

This release is certainly never afraid to be forceful, and gives as much prominence to the darkness as to the light. Listen to the explosive opening of the Dies Irae and, with the wonderfully full-bodied choir and aggressive brass, it feels that we are hearing not only a piece of music that is glaring death in the eye, but also performers playing for their lives. Indeed, this sense of vitality and liveliness in the singers (a touch ironic, perhaps) is matched by the instrumentalists, and the acoustic captures the imitation between the brass and choir effectively. A more transparent recording than Karajan’s DG reading enables a more prominent brass and string section, vital in communicating the raw energy and darkness of Mozart’s score.

Indeed, compared to Karajan, Jacobs employs a much faster tempo for the Tuba Mirum – or perhaps I should say that Karajan employed a tempo that was far slower – and Jacobs is much closer to Mozart’s andante marking. It is a shame, however, that the opening descending crotchets speed up, denying the phrase the gravity attained in the more consistent opening tempo of Marriner’s classic Philips recording. However, both Marriner and Jacobs are agreed in their faster tempo reading in comparison to Karajan’s sluggishness, creating a greater sense of movement in the Tuba Mirum. This heightens the drama of the tenor’s entry and the voices’ dotted rhythms. Karajan, whilst aiming for an epic stateliness, achieves more of an inflated sluggishness that detracts from the grandeur of this section. Yet, even compared to Marriner, Jacobs takes a very fast tempo; in the Tuba Mirum, Jacobs’ recording lasts just 3m11s, compared to Marriner’s 3m47s and Karajan’s 4m21s. Jacobs clearly aims for fast-paced dramatic tension; one could argue Marriner finds a better compromise between dramatic agility and stately gravitas, as Jacobs does occasionally feel rushed, as in the opening descending crotchets. Marriner’s tempo is my ideal: weighty yet with a sense of movement.

Tempo is fast elsewhere in the new recording; Jacobs’ genuine allegro of the Communio: Lux aeterna creates a fantastic sense of buoyancy, making the semiquavers sound far more agile than Karajan’s slower reading. The Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser sings beautifully in the Lux Aeterna, performing with great purity of tone and a well-controlled vibrato that never distracts from the text. There is a beautiful simplicity and delicacy that expertly conveys the “eternal light” described.

This recording’s unique selling point is the score it uses; instead of utilising Franz Xaver Süssmayr’s completion of Mozart’s original, Jacobs makes use of Pierre-Henri Dutron’s 2016 revised score, a project motivated by Dutron’s frustration at the inadequacies of Süssmayr’s version. Amongst the changes made by Dutron is a revised ending, which turns to an adagio tempo earlier and uses an extra pause – alongside dynamic contrast – to conclude the work with what Dutron argues would have been closer to Mozart’s true style. This recording is thus an important documentation of an alternative perspective on a well-known piece, providing fresh perspectives and asking further questions about the legitimacy and efficacy of Süssmayr’s version.

Harmonia Mundi’s new release is a powerful tour de force that confronts us with the high drama and tension of Mozart’s late masterpiece. With superb dynamic contrast, tempi that mostly strike a good balance between stateliness and momentum, and beautifully expressive singing, this is a highly enjoyable disc that communicates the full force of the huge emotions that Mozart grapples with. Given that the piece was performed at the funerals of Joseph Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Rossini, Berlioz and Hallé, not to mention Goethe and Schiller, this is music that is intimately connected to death beyond just its subject matter. It is music about death in the fullest sense. With this recording, it is impossible not to be aware that one is listening to a piece of music that looks death in the eye. With the added interest of Dutron’s revisions, the spectre of death in Mozart’s score is communicated here with the fullest force of life.

Jack Pepper

References:

Landon, H. C. Robbins. 1999. 1791, Mozart’s last year. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus, Sylvia McNair, Carolyn Watkinson, Neville Marriner, Francisco Araiza, Robert Lloyd, and Franz Xaver Süssmayr. 1991. Requiem, K. 626. London: Philips.

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Helga Müller Molinari, Vinson Cole, Paata Burchuladze, and Herbert von Karajan. 1987. Requiem K. 626. Hamburg: Deutsche Grammophon.

      

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