René Jacobs' take on Mozart's Requiem

Every conductor who undertakes Mozart's Requiem must ask one fundamental question: Whose Requiem shall I conduct? After René Jacobs asked the question, he can up with a novel solution for his new period-aware, decidedly contemporary Harmonia Mundi recording of the Requiem with the Freiburger Barockorchester and RIAS Kammerchor.

When Mozart died on December 5, 1791, he had completed only the opening Introit of his Requiem. For most of the other movements, he had written only the vocal lines and a few fragments of orchestration, including a partially figured bass. The music for the Lacrimosa broke off after eight bars, and the Sanctus and everything beyond it remained unwritten.

Although excerpts from the Mass were reportedly performed at Mozart's funeral, most of those were completed by a person unknown to us (hereafter called "anonymous"). At the request of Mozart's wife, Costanza, further attempts at completion were made by 26-year old Joseph Leopold Eybler, who circled his contributions as he inscribed them onto Mozart's manuscript, and then Maximilian Stadler. Finally came Franz Xaver Süssmayr, whose skills Mozart had mocked in letters and comments. Süssmayr built on the works of anonymous, Eybler, and Stadler, and composed the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei himself.

To this day, it is unknown if Süssmayr had the advantage of Mozart's instructions or feedback, or if he simply winged it on his own. What is certain, however, is that dissatisfaction about the stylistic and inspirational inconsistencies of the composite work that we call "Mozart's Requiem" has led to several other attempts to complete the work in styles more in accord with Mozart's own.

For his recording, which I auditioned in 24/96, Jacobs was not content to simply return to Süssmayr's completion, Instead, he opted for a new (2016) completion by Pierre-Henri Dutron that draws from everything in Mozart's manuscript, as well as the contributions of Süssmayr and those who came before him, to create a fast-paced, vital account whose cumulative impact is devastating in its depiction of pain and suffering.

Aligned with the latest research into baroque performance practice, and the frequent resort to improvisation and arrangement in those times, Dutron also took contemporary practice into account as he began with Mozart's original score. Working in close collaboration with Jacobs, whom he describes as practicing "reasoned freedom" in his performances of original texts, Dutron arranged the orchestral accompaniment for the sections extending from the Kyrie to the Hostias by consulting only Mozart's original manuscript, and ignoring other completions. For the parts that Mozart did not compose, from the Sanctus onwards, he created two variants: the version Süssmayr Remade, which takes into account Süssmayr's contributions, and which was used for the recording, and another, Mozart Extended, which eliminates the completions of others and starts from scratch.

Because it builds upon the familiar, hearing Süssmayr Remade will comes as less of a shock, and more of an enlightenment to those familiar with the Requiem. The Dies Irae stands out for its power and fury, as the soloists—Sophie Karthäuser, soprano; Marie-Claude Chappuis, alto; Maximilian Schmitt, tenor; and Johannes Weisser, baritone—sing with minimal vibrato and consistent beauty of tone. All have "Mozartian voices," in which vibrato is minimized and legato and proportion count for a great deal. Although Schmitt occasionally sounds a bit overwrought, the soloist blend is exceptional, with the sections where Karthäuser harmonizes with Chappuis positively divine. The darkness of the Rex tremendae is chilling, the commitment of all parties in the Recordare tremendous, and the consolation in the Confutatis deeply felt.

Every lover of the so-called Mozart Requiem will want to hear this recording. The better you know the work, the more will Jacobs and Dutron entice you to listen anew.

mrkwr's picture

…for introducing me to this recording, it's truly wonderful. The Lacrimosa is the most affecting version on record?

Among the more recent recordings, I'd of late been enjoying the Dunedin Consort and the Teodor Currentzis, but this is something else.

Axiom05's picture

Thanks for reviewing this one. Definitely a fine tuning rather than a reworking. Current issue of Gramophone has a piece on this edition as well as a review of the recording. I wasn't quite sure whether reviewer liked the recording or not. Your positive review motivated me to download the 24/96 flac from eClassical (still available at new release discount). Very enjoyable, my only complaint is that at 45 minutes, the album is a bit short on music.

dalethorn's picture

I got the 96/24 FLAC from Presto Classical. Very nice. It's almost frightening to contemplate the incredible workload Mozart took on that close to his death.

dalethorn's picture

BTW, for the few audiophiles who don't hear a clear difference between the uncompressed music and a good MP3 conversion (320 kbps CBR), this recording is a great example of where lossy compression fails on the intense massed vocals.

janchadley's picture

I've performed this work both as a principal soloist (Bass/baritone) and chorus member in addition to the pure enjoyment of listening to it as an audiophile and I'm always interested to hear new interpretations. Honestly, I didn't like the hurried up tempos and accentuated rhythm. The chorus had a rich sound but lacking in dynamics. The lack of dynamics were especially evident in Confutatis, "Voca me cum benedictus..." is usually ppp and they were singing it mf. The recording quality was decent, but I wasn't digging the directors interpretation at all. I'm glad I was never commissioned for this one, singers hate being rushed through Mozart. You cant show off your pipes! Glad I listened to it on Spotify first before paying for the FLAC. As a musician, I can't recommend it, as an audiophile, yah, its ok. BTW, the variations in completions are not near as significant as just the conductors interpretations and quality/quantity of the chorus and principals. Sorry to sound so negative. Happy listening my peoples!

dalethorn's picture

When Jason said "fast-paced", he wasn't kidding. Normally, if something is played too fast I don't like it, but this one grew on me. And I suppose it's the audiophile gene that made it possible.