Recording of September 2004: Mozart: Requiem

MOZART: Requiem
Christine Schafer, soprano; Bernarda Fink, alto; Kurt Streit, tenor; Gerald Finley, bass; Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Concentus Musicus Wien; Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 82876 58705 2 (SACD/CD). 2004. Friedemann Engelbrecht, prod.; Michael Brammann, Josef Schutz, engs. DDD. TT: 50:23
Performance ****
Sonics *****

Though the performance history of a standard-repertoire masterpiece can level off into minute refinements of what has come before, Mozart's Requiem has enjoyed extraordinary dynamism in recent years as scholars and conductors endlessly dispute the validity of Franz Xavier Sussmayr's standard completion of what Mozart left unfinished.

However fascinating, such discussions may not ultimately matter all that much to listeners—I can take or leave the much-discussed "Amen" fugue that's intermittently restored to the piece—but the variety of editions allow conductors to chart more personal courses through this work than with pieces where the only textual decision is whether or not to take the repeats. The "edition question" is thus a catalyst for such personalized performances that you can't recommend a top two or three recordings of the piece: There is no single authoritative peak performance by which to measure them.

The often-provocative Nikolaus Harnoncourt delivers his own distinctive answers to interpretive questions with particularly inspired help from the superb Arnold Schoenberg Choir and an ideal quartet of soloists. So with a recording so stimulating on all fronts, it's yet another necessary acquisition for anyone interested in exploring new facets of the Requiem.

Harnoncourt uses the Franz Beyer edition, which considers Sussmayr's contribution inextricable from Mozart's and makes the best of it by correcting its mistakes. In other words, no "Amen" fugue. In effect, this edition takes Harnoncourt 360 degrees—pretty much back where we were 15 years ago, when so much of this questioning started. But his interpretation is anything but the standard Colin Davis or Karl Böhm approach, and not just because Harnoncourt comes to Mozart with his own mutation of historically informed performance. In addition to the leaner, low-vibrato string textures that come with that territory,familiar Harnoncourt earmarks include steep extremes in dynamics and tempos, rhythmic robustness that doesn't let the music lull itself into mere mellifluousness plus bracing edges to the harmonic textures arising from selective emphases of inner voices. There's little that's comforting in his view of the Requiem; Harnoncourt finds tension even in some of the most thinly composed passages.

What really sets the tone for this performance is the Kyrie fugue, to which Harnoncourt gives what might be called the Glenn Gould treatment: Notes are punched harder than in most performances of the Requiem, which not only delivers greater clarity in the counterpoint but gives the fugue great continuity. By the end, you're happy to have followed its logic bar by bar, and realized you've done so all too rarely. Elsewhere, this recording holds one's interest even in the later movements, which contain little or no music by Mozart. Few performances of the Requiem can make this claim. Scholars have questioned Sussmayr's recycling of the Kyrie fugue in the final section, but Harnoncourt makes it seem like an inevitability.

Even more than usual, the Arnold Schoenberg Choir is more about clarity and comprehension than about any sort of sensual choral sound—this is a requiem, after all—though I'm glad to report that the vocal soloists haven't entirely reined in their individual personalities or vocal tones. In fact, I don't recall tenor Kurt Streit ever sounding better. Though one of the world's great halls, Vienna's reverberant Musikvereinsaal doesn't always sound like one on recordings; on this outing, though, I feel as if I'm there. For those who wish to commune more deeply with Mozart, his manuscript for sections of the Requiem can be seen on the disc's CD ROM track. (For further comment on the SACD layer of this disc please consult Music in The Round in December 2004.)—David Patrick Stearns

lemarquis's picture

There are so many great recordings and interpretations of Mozart's Requiem that it's difficult to choose a favorite. Harnoncourt's is one of the best and I've included it in my list of favorite Mozart Requiem recordings. It is certainly original and the SACD sound quality is excellent.