Mozart: Requiem (CD review)

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 Orchestra and Chorus. CORO COR16093.

By now most people are aware of the circumstances surrounding Mozart's composition of his final, unfinished work, the Requiem, K626, of 1791. A mysterious stranger shows up at the composer's door with a commission for a Requiem Mass but refusing to name the person who sent him. Mozart dies before finishing it, and one of his assistants, Franz Xavier Sussmayr, completes it. Did Mozart foresee his own death? Was he knowingly writing his own funeral music? Or did a jealous rival, Antonio Salieri, secretly contract the work and then poison Mozart? And other such imaginative speculations.

Actually, most of the story is pretty straightforward, if far less fun. As the CORO booklet note points out, "The messenger was an envoy from one Count Franz von Walsegg, who wanted a Requiem to commemorate the recent death of his young wife Anna; the secrecy was because Walsegg was a keen amateur musician in the habit of commissioning pieces of music, having them performed at his house 50 miles south-west of Vienna, and mischievously passing them off as his own." I suppose he might have gotten away with it had Mozart not died before completing the commission.

Anyway, here we get a spirited account of the Requiem from Harry Christophers and the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra and Chorus, which, again from a booklet note, were "founded in 1815...America's oldest continuously performing arts organization....  Its Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus are internationally recognized in the field of Historically Informed Performance, a revelatory style that uses the instruments and techniques of the composer's time."

But before we get to the Requiem, we find a prefatory piece, another late work by Mozart, the Ave verum corpus, ("Hail, the true body"), K618, from 1791. It's very short and very sweet, kind of Mozart in miniature.

Then Maestro Christophers leads the Handel and Haydn ensemble in a lively reading of the Requiem that always displays a strong forward pulse, used to advantageous dramatic effect. Indeed, if anything Christophers drives his players and singers rather hard at times, substituting visceral thrills for spiritual repose.

Happily, he doesn't overdrive the production to distraction. Still, he does take most of the movements at faster tempos than we hear from most other conductors, and he tends to emphasize the dynamic contrasts more forcefully. As a result, we get a more-exciting, more red-blooded presentation than many of us may have heard before, which the listener may or may not appreciate in this particular music. The Lacrimosa acts as a sort of breather in the action, and then it's back to the emphatic gestures of the first half. For better or for worse, if you hear it, prepare yourself for a more-animated Requiem than is usual.

Following the Requiem, the orchestra's bass player, Robert Nairn, introduces the final number, Mozart's aria "Per questa bella mano" ("By this beautiful hand"), K612, also a late work written in the composer's final year, 1791. Eric Owens sings it quite beautifully, with obbligato accompaniment by Mr. Nairn and the orchestra.

CORO recorded the music live in Symphony Hall, Boston, in 2011, the sound quite close up, closer than in most recordings of Mozart's Requiem. As such, it delivers a good, clear response, with a wide stereo spread at the expense of one's sitting in the front row. While there isn't much orchestral depth, there is a compensating dynamic impact that is quite realistic and pleasing. The highest reaches of female voices can be a tad forward; otherwise, there is a fairly natural-sounding, if slightly soft, midrange.

Because it's live, we also hear some inevitable coughs and wheezes on occasion; it's never too disruptive, but it does remind us we're not in a studio. Only at the end of the entire program does the audience erupt into an unfortunate applause.


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