Mozart: Requiem (CD review)

Choir of New College Oxford; Edward Higginbottom, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Novum NCR1383.

The key word here is "authentic."  As the program notes are quick to point out, this recording of Mozart's Requiem is unique in several ways: It uses "soloists drawn from the chorus, as in Mozart's day, including young male singers for the soprano and alto solos" (the New College Choir made up of youngsters twelve to twenty-two), and it uses a period ensemble, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The result is a performance on the scale of those in Mozart's day. Although, of course, Mozart would never have heard his own Requiem, given that he left it uncompleted at his death. The version we get here is the customary one completed by Franz Xavier Sussmayr, Mozart's assistant and copyist.

Despite the use of period instruments and the determination of correct size and makeup of the choir and ensemble, Maestro Edward Higginbottom's new realization of the Requiem may or may not be entirely "authentic," since no one can go back through the centuries to hear what the earliest performances sounded like. In the instance of Higginbottom, his performance may follow all the earmarks of authentic performance practice, phrasing and tuning, but that doesn't mean that traditionalists should dismiss it. Overall, I like this new interpretation very much.

It is in the beginning of the piece, the Introitus, that Higginbottom seems most conventional and respectful. In effect, he doesn't tip his hand to the excitement to come until the succeeding segments.

Then, in the Squenz, the Dies irae is properly fiery, powerful, and wrathful, a foreshadowing of more good things to follow. Then, in the Tuba mirum, Recordare, and later Benedictus sections, where we hear the solo quartet of voices sung by children in the soprano and alto parts, the performance becomes particularly effective, the young male voices, crisply articulated, quite affecting in their innocence. Here, Higginbottom moves along a little more briskly than many other conductors in the work. Indeed, as the performance proceeds, it actually appears to pick up energy and distinguish itself from its seemingly more timid rivals.

The Offertorium movements are spirited yet always gracious and graceful, the conductor and his forces doing their utmost to present the music in a new light. Still, new light or no, the music seems fresher and more illuminating than ever. It's a revelatory new version of an old warhorse. Although it may not tickle the fancy of every Mozart fan the way it did me, I look forward to hearing many times over.

Novum recorded the music at the Church of St. Michel and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford, England, in July of 2010. It exhibits a good sense of depth in instrumentation and voices, with a reasonably well balanced response. While there is a slightly forward quality to the upper midrange that makes voices a little brighter than I'd like, it is hardly a concern, and it may, in fact, help to clarify the vocals. All around, the sound is clear and clean, with enough ambient hall bloom to ensure realism and an appropriate perception of acoustic space.

As a footnote, I should add that Higgenbottom's extensive booklet notes on the composition of the Requiem make a fascinating and enlightening read. If you buy the disc, don't miss them. I even like the cover design.


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