Remarkable performance of a noble work: Mozart’s Requiem

Mozart Requiem by candlelight

Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir, Vector Wellington Orchestra, Morag Atchison (soprano), Bianca Andrew (mezzo-soprano), Bonaventure Allan-Moetaua (tenor), Shane Lowrencev (bass), Douglas Mews (organ), conducted by Karen Grylls

St. Paul’s Cathedral, Hill Street

Wednesday, 6 June 2012, 7.30pm

Hearing a performance of Mozart’s great Requiem, (completed by his pupil Süssmayr) is always an event; it seems a pity that this presentation came so soon after the Bach Choir’s performance of the same work (see Middle C review by Peter Mechen, on 31 March).  Bianca Andrew was the mezzo-soprano on that occasion also.

Prior to the performance, there was a talk by Peter Walls.  He traced the history of the myths around the work’s composition, Mozart’s premonitions of death, and of the various hands that contributed to the completion of the work, at the request of Mozart’s widow, Constanze.

Peter Walls had a timeline of when each event occurred, and a table showing which composer ‘had a go’ at which sections of the work.  He concluded that for well-argued reasons, Süssmayr’s was the most satisfactory completion, although the latter apparently lacked confidence in counterpoint (he was only 21), and in writing for trumpets and timpani, and ignored some of Mozart’s writing.

Some other notes from the talk are worth recording: the work incorporates elements of opera, drama, and rhetorical ideas.  The work is both ceremonial and personal.  The instruments accompany the choir; they do not have much scope for ‘doing their own thing’.  The orchestration is spare, being for strings, organ, basset horns and bassoons, plus brass and timpani.  The basset horns give a plangent, reflective sound.  Some of the writing echoes Handel, and also plainchant, not to mention the material that Mozart was working on at the time of commencing the Requiem: the operas La Clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute).

It was gratifying to see a ‘Sold Out’ sign in the Cathedral foyer, but not so pleasing to see that numbers of the reserved seats remained unoccupied, and that several rows at the front, not reserved, were largely empty, with no-one ushering people into them.

What struck me first about the choir was its comparatively small size; six to each part made for a well-balanced choral sound, but initially I considered the choir too small for this work.  It is the size of the choir (men and boys in his case) used by Mozart for his 1789 arrangement of Handel’s Messiah.

With the orchestra, notably the brass, in front of the choir, the sound at first was too quiet and not focused – it didn’t speak out.  After the mournful opening orchestral phrase, the basses’ entry in the Introit was strong; the tenors’ less so.  By the Dies Irae opening of the Sequenz, the sound was being projected better, and I realised that rehearsals would have taken place in an empty cathedral; the sound would have carried well compared with the performance, when several hundred bodies were soaking up the wavelengths.

Peter Walls suggested that the first movement, Introit, with its walking , might be seen as journey towards death.

The fugal Kyrie was taken fast, as was the Dies Irae.  The organ was employed for almost the entire work, but while it obviously provided a continuo basis to the texture, it was seldom heard through the other instruments.

Apart from a short earlier passage from soprano Morag Atchison, the soloists came into their own in the Tuba Mirum.  Both tenor and bass proved to have exciting voices, though that of bass Shane Lowrencev from Melbourne was not particularly rich, and good projection.  Bianca Andrew sounded fine; Atchison’s voice had a little too much vibrato for my taste, but her tone and accuracy were very good.  All put over the words clearly and accurately.

It might  have been useful to leave a gap in the printed programme between the various parts of the Sequenz, to assist the audience to find their places, since following the words gives infinitely more meaning to Mozart’s word-painting.  However, the concert was advertised as being by candlelight, in which case the printed words would not have been of much use.  In the event, the lights were not lowered until after the start of the Benedictus.  Whether this was deliberate or simply forgotten earlier, I do not know; certainly the choir had their mini-torches on their music folders lit from the beginning.

The Rex Tremendae section started in thrilling fashion from the men of the choir, while the women’s Salva Me was beautifully done.

Recordare began with the basset horns giving a wonderful almost spooky sound, followed by the soloists’ parts intertwining appealingly.  Confutatis again featured marvellous contrast between the male voices and the ethereal women’s voices.  All was delineated carefully, with just the right tone.  Indeed, attention to detail and variation of vocal tone were common denominators through most of the concert.

How wonderful the Latin language is to sing, especially when set by a genius like Mozart!  All those pure vowels!  It hardly needs to be said that in this choir everyone makes the vowels in exactly the same way.

The orchestra, too, was unified.  The strings made their anguished sounds here and in the Lacrimosa.  The players were in good form throughout the performance, although there was not the bite that an orchestra of Mozart’s time would have had, with narrower bore brass instruments, and smaller timpani.

The Offertorium provides contrasts between the legato words against the running strings accompaniment.  The music reflects the words so well that there is a case for having surtitles, as the Tudor Consort did at a concert not so long ago, so that the audience can really tie words and music together, and learn why the composer set the words as he did.  The soloists sang splendidly in this section

Then comes the Hostias; my favourite part of the whole work.  This is heavenly and sublime, with wonderfully gentle clashes and contrasts, before the rapid repeat of ‘quam olim Abrahae promisisti’.

The Sanctus (the first of the three movements thought to be written entirely by Süssmayr) was sung in robust fashion.  Then the beautiful melody of the Benedictus, sung first by the mezzo-soprano, enchanted.  It was well executed, the wonderful chromatic phrase having full impact.

The poignant, even anguished Agnus Dei exploited dynamic contrasts to the full.  The setting of the words ‘luceat eis’ never fails to move, the whole being quite thrilling.  The basset horns and bassoons underlie the pleading tone, while the chords of ‘sempiternam’ give a positive cadence to the ending.  The Communio ‘Lux aeterna’ creates an exciting build-up to the repeat of the fugue from the beginning of the work.  The powerful, intricate polyphony of ‘cum sanctis tuis’ is the dramatic ending.

As an encore, following prolonged, enthusiastic applause, Karen Grylls conducted the choir in an exquisite performance of Mozart’s motet ‘Ave Verum’, also written near the end of his life, but harmonic in structure, rather than contrapuntal.  It was the perfect conclusion to a remarkable evening of hearing one of the noblest works of the choral repertoire.


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