A Requiem Full Of Life

With Harry Christophers and the Handel and Haydn Society, Mozart’s final masterpiece has never sounded so exciting

Composer: Mozart
Repertoire: Requiem
Artists: Handel and Haydn Society/Harry Christophers
Rating: 5/5
Label: CORO COR16093

The Music: Put yourself in poor Franz Xaver Süssmayr’s shoes. Your close friend and mentor (who, not insignificantly, happened to be a genius of the first order) has died unexpectedly. Said friend’s widow charges you with completing her beloved dead husband’s final work so that she can avoid bankruptcy and keep her children fed and clothed. A bit of a tight spot to find yourself in, no? The enduring popularity of Mozart’s Requiem with choirs and orchestras over the past 220 years bears testament to Süssmayr’s masterful response to this daunting challenge. Without going back to the original manuscripts it is impossible to hear where Mozart ends and Süssmayr begins. And when the music is this good, it actually doesn’t matter.

The Performance: That said, performances of the Requiem can vary widely in interpretative approach. Some treat it as a dirge, a slow, painful, terrifying trudge. That is not the case here. This new recording by Harry Christophers and the Handel and Haydn Society is punchy and dramatic, and never cloying or ponderous.

Founded in 1815, the Handel and Haydn Society is America’s oldest continuously performing arts organisation. Christophers became artistic director in 2009 and this is their second recording for Coro (their first, of Mozart’s Mass in C, garnered four stars in our December 2010 issue). It is a ‘live’ recording taped at two concerts earlier this year, which means that there are one or two of what Christophers terms
‘rough edges’ in his booklet note. But there is also a tangible excitement and a momentum from one movement to the next that makes this interpretation far more exciting than many studio recordings. The beautifully articulated florid passage-work in the Kyrie (from the singers and – even more impressively – the brass players) effectively acts as a launch pad for the Dies irae that follows. And what a Dies irae this is. Breathless, barely contained, with brisk and extreme changes of dynamics always grabbing you by the hand and dragging you onwards; it is totally compelling.

Perhaps the most obvious comparison for this new recording
is Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s live recording from 2003 with the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and Concentus Musicus (DHM, 88697 39794-2). At the same point in the Requiem, Harnoncourt’s Kyrie feels ponderous and directionless when heard alongside Christophers’, and the following Dies irae contains far less dynamic excitement, being mostly mezzo forte. The choir on the Harnoncourt recording also appears much more recessed; on this new recording the singers are aurally centre-stage, all of the harmonies and detail in the mingling vocal lines distinct.

Harnoncourt’s soloists are certainly a starry bunch: soprano Christine Schäfer, mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, tenor Kurt Streit and baritone Gerald Finley. And, as you’d expect of that group, they make a glorious vocal quartet in the Recordare. Yet Christophers’ quartet (soprano
Elizabeth Watts, mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella, tenor Andrew Kennedy and bass-baritone Eric Owens) perform a Recordare that feels better blended, the singers modulating their voices to sympathise effectively, rather than competing to out-emote each other. Harnoncourt’s tempo is significantly slower than Christophers’ again; Harnoncourt clocks in at 6'19" compared to Christophers’ 4'23". There is no time for the mind to wander in Christophers’ new Requiem.

The two fillers are exceptionally well chosen. The Ave verum corpus also dates from Mozart’s final year and is small but perfectly formed. Here it is the opening track and acts as a pleasing overture to the Requiem, whilst Per questa bella mano (following an interesting verbal commentary by Robert Nairn – although you won’t want to hear it more than once) is the postscript. This concert aria, dating from March 1791, was written for the bass Franz Xaver Gerl, who was a member of Emanuel Schikaneder’s opera company and would, later that year, play the role of Sarastro in the first production of The Magic Flute.

The Verdict: As an overview of Mozart’s ever-transforming musical style in 1791, this disc is fascinating. If you’ve found Mozart’s Requiem overbearing and stodgy in the past, this new recording is the one for you. It’s the most consistently engaging and propulsive recording of the Requiem I’ve heard. So, hats off to all concerned, but particularly to Harry Christophers for shaping and controlling such irresistible dramatic momentum over the entire duration of the Requiem. Hasn’t he been knighted yet? Someone should look into that...