MOZART (edited Süssmayer) – Requiem KV 626
Amelia Ryman (soprano) / Bianca Andrew (mezzo-soprano)
Thomas Atkins (tenor) / David Morriss (bass)
The Bach Choir of Wellington
Douglas Mews (organ)
Conductor: Stephen Rowley
St.Peter’s Church, Willis St., Wellington
Saturday 31st March 2012
Wiser, more experienced concert-going heads than mine would have been better-prepared for the likelihood that the Bach Choir’s Mozart Requiem performance would use an organ rather than the orchestra the composer specified. Having grasped this state of things upon entering the beautiful Church of St.Peter’s on Willis St. in Wellington, I simply had to deal with my own withdrawal symptoms at cardinal points (alas, no trumpets and drums at Dies Irae, no trombone at Tuba mirum and no remorseless, driving strings in the Confutatis maledictis, to mention just some of the obviously affected places). As well, I needed to put Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette out of my mind as best I could at the performance’s almost jaunty organ-only beginning. But when the choir entered with the words “Requiem aeternam”, everything changed dramatically.
Right from these opening phrases, the choir under Stephen Rowley’s direction sang with splendidly-focused tones and full-blooded commitment, rising to the challenge of “carrying” much of the work’s weight and momentum, in the absence of an orchestra. Once I’d adjusted my own expectations I actually found more to relish in Douglas Mews’ organ accompaniments than I expected to, even if parts of the Dies Irae without trumpets and drums sounded a bit undernourished. There were places I wanted more pointed instrumental emphasis, though in one instance (the beginning of the Lacrimosa) the organ blurted out a phrase rather alarmingly before being quickly brought back into line. But mostly the organ-playing served the performance well, a touch of awry ensemble at the first “Quam olim Abrahae” being more in the realm of an occupational hazard than anything else, I would think.
I was impressed with the choir throughout, their lines confidently placed and clearly-voiced across the spectrum, given that the men’s voices were always going to have to work hard by dint of comparative lack of numbers. But whatever imbalances there were I could hear the tenors and basses at almost all times keeping their lines alive and buoyant within the ensemble. Stephen Rowley drove the opening Requiem swiftly, encouraging dramatic attack and plenty of contrast with the more hushed tones at the repeated “Luceat eis”, and allowing the beautifully-floated tones of soprano Amelia Ryman plenty of room. The fugal Kyrie also went with a will, the ensemble crisp and energetic, and the women’s voices actually relishing things like their awkward “eleision” ascents leading up to the assertive final supplication.
One had to “sound” the trumpets and drums of the Dies Irae from within one’s imagination, here, though the musicians’ energies carried the day, the men at their exposed “Quantus tremor” not especially strong, but reliably alert. Then, at the Tuba Mirum the soloists took over the performance – a glorious, magisterial solo from bass David Morriss, negotiating his wide leaps with sure-voiced aplomb, paved the way for the others. Thomas Atkins’ opening notes sounded a tad stressful at first, but he quickly settled into a warm-toned “Liber scriptus”, while mezzo Bianca Andrew’s “Judex ergo” had a rich, velvety quality conveying a properly awed response to the apocalyptic solemnity of her words. Amelia Ryman’s purely-focused lines brought to us a beautifully-ascending “Cum vix justus sit securus?” the words repeated to expressive effect by a tremulously-voiced ensemble of soloists.
A confidently-propelled Rex Tremendae from choir and organ incorporated some lovely sounds from the women at “Salva me”, followed by the reflective Recordare, delicately begun by the organ, and richly-coloured by the mezzo and bass combination, Bianca Andrew and David Morriss, contouring their tones to great effect. The same went for Amelia Ryman and Thomas Atkins a few measures later, the soprano leaving behind a momentary awkwardness at the opening to enchant us with her ascent at “Sed tu bonus fac benigne”. Stephen Rowley then got the maximum possible dramatic contrast with the choir’s Confutatis maledictis, the desperately driving momentums of which brought the subsequent creepy chromaticisms of “Oro supplex et acclinis” into bold relief. Apart from the momentary organ outburst, the Lacrimosa was brought into being with lovely gravitas, Rowley controlling its ebb and flow of emotion with considerable sensitivity, the intensification of “Dona eis Requiem” melting naturally and organically into the final “Amen”.
As the work progressed the choir’s energies seemed constantly to renew themselves, the vigour and focus of the “Osanna” fugues carrying over to the final “Cum sanctis tuis”, and bringing things to a resplendent conclusion. But there was also dignity, tenderness and warmth to be had from the Agnus Dei, with Douglas Mews’ registrations deftly coloring the music’s different dynamics. And Amelia Ryman’s brief but beautiful lead-in to the concluding Lux aeterna had the choir responding in kind, then unerringly building things towards the closure of the work’s circle.
The soloists again came into their own in the Benedictus, the singing as finely-wrought as with the earlier Recordare, with solo lines and ensemble passages alike delighting the ear. The sounds we were given made for moments of great sublimity, even if the music in this instance was more inspired than penned by Mozart, who died before the Requiem was finished. This and the preceding Sanctus were completed by the composer’s pupil Franz Süssmayer, who arranged and reworked a good deal of the music. Fortunately, the music-making throughout this performance was of a quality which appeared to ennoble the ideas and efforts of those who worked to try and realize Mozart’s intentions. It made as though we had with us a real sense of the spirit of the composer.