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H&H Stresses Drama in Handel, Mozart


A program of music by Handel and Mozart centered on Mozart’s Requiem was presented by the Handel and Haydn Society conducted by Harry Christophers in Symphony Hall on Friday, April 29, and repeated on Sunday afternoon, May 1. Following is a review of the Friday evening performance.

The program opened with Mozart’s Ave verum corpus (Hail, true body), composed in June 1791. Characterized by exquisitely balanced, transparent, and deceptively simple part writing for four voices, with minimal thematic input from the instrumental accompaniment, the motet is a favorite of choirs the world over, but seldom as beautifully performed as we heard it last night. The choir of thirty-six voices was trained to perfection by chorus-master John Finney. Christophers eschewed fussy dynamics and slow tempo, reading Adagio in cut-C as “slow but steady” half-note beats that allowed the restrained melodic and harmonic subtleties to unfold without pathos or exaggeration.

A very different side of Mozart’s activity during his final year was displayed in the concert aria for bass voice and orchestra, Per questa bella mano (K612). Composed in March 1791 for Franz Xaver Gerl, who sang the role of Osmin in The Abduction from the Seraglio and was the first Sarastro in The Magic Flute, it features a virtuosic obbligato part for double bass. Playing a five-string instrument with a baroque bow, bassist Robert Nairn proved more than a match for the intricate figuration — much of it in double stops — and wide melodic span of his part. Bass-baritone Eric Owens chose not to exploit the potentially comic aspects of this incongruous setting of a serious love poem, demonstrating that his ample voice of sizeable range and power was also capable of considerable expressive nuance.

Handel’s opulent setting of Psalm 110, Dixit Dominus Domino meo (The Lord said unto my Lord) for five-part choir and five-part string ensemble dates from his early years in Rome; it was completed in 1707.  Soprano Elizabeth Watts and mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella were the excellent principal soloists, with shorter solo contributions from choir members Margot Rood and Teresa Wakim, sopranos, mezzo Abigail Levis, tenors Randy McGee, and bass Woodrow Bynum. Christophers’s springy tempos and driving rhythm emphasized the dramatic moments in Handel’s setting, although occasionally one might have wished for a greater sense of line in longer phrases. Highlights included the contrast of homophony and fugue in the chorus Juravit Dominuus (The Lord hath sworn), detached, percussive chords on the words “conquassibit capita” (he shall wound the heads), and piquant suspensions on the words “De torrente in via bibet” (He shall drink of the brook along the way).

The central work on the program was the Mozart Requiem, heard after the intermission. As is well known, in the summer of 1791 the Mass was commissioned anonymously by a Count von Walsegg, who wished to pass the work off as his own, in memory of his wife. Mozart did not begin continuous work on the Requiem until his return from Prague in mid-September, and it was left unfinished when he died on December 5th. His widow Constanze had the work completed by his pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr and delivered to the still unknown client. Several performances took place after Mozart’s death, and a full score was published in Leipzig in 1800. A still unsettled controversy ensued over how much of the Requiem could be called Mozart’s. The original manuscripts remained unavailable until 1838, when they were discovered in Count von Walsegg’s estate, and in 1962 a single sheet of autograph sketches was discovered containing a fragment of the Rex tremendae and sixteen measures of an Amen fugue to conclude the Sequence (at the end of the Lacrymosa). Although at least three others have been shown to have had a hand in completing the Requiem as delivered to the Count, only Süssmayr, who died in 1803, admitted to having done so.

By all accounts, Süssmayr’s compositional skills, particularly in contrapuntal writing, were mediocre at best. Recent studies, summarized in the introduction to Robert Levin’s completion of the Requiem (Stuttgart Mozart Editions) suggest that some of the music claimed to be exclusively Süssmayr’s is better than what he could have produced entirely on his own, and that he may have had access to sketches that are no longer extant. Constanze referred to “a few scraps of paper with music on them” found among Mozart’s papers after his death and given to Süssmayr, but we do not know whether they contained additional material that Süssmayr might have used in completing Mozart’s work. Levin corrected some of Süssmayr’s most glaring errors, composed a fugal Amen for the Lacrymosa based on Mozart’s sketch, and refined some of Süssmayr’s overly thick orchestration. In the Sanctus, he replaced the reprise of the Hosanna fugue, which Süssmayr transposed to B-flat, the key of the preceding Benedictus, with a shortened version in D major, the key in which it first appears.

The Handel and Haydn Society’s performance appears to have been based instead on the edition prepared by Leopold Nowak for the New Mozart Edition (Bärenreiter), which reproduces the Requiem in the traditional form known since the first printed edition of 1800. The performance by the choir, period orchestra, and vocal quartet of soprano, mezzo, and bass soloists joined by tenor Andrew Kennedy was generally of a very high level, and there were many breathtaking moments. Among these were the duet between bass-baritone Eric Owens and trombonist Gregory Spiridopoulos at the opening of Tuba mirum, the duo of “basset horns” (low clarinets in F) in the Recordare, and the exquisite choral sound of the Hostias. Christophers’s interpretation again stressed the dramatic aspects of the text, especially striking when the opening words of the Sequence, Dies irae, immediately and startlingly invoked the wrath of God following the Kyrie’s plea for mercy. While there is no reason for a concert performance to replicate liturgical usage (which would have included intervening prayers and the plainchant Gradual and Tract), perhaps a moment’s pause for reflection between movements would have been in order.

Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.


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