With every seat occupied, including those behind columns and atop the professionally vacant balcony-organ bench, one could be forgiven for wondering if the buzzing crowd shoehorned yesterday into Harvard’s Memorial Church had gathered for the deciding game of the World Series instead of a Mass for the Dead. But in fact, Mozart’s Requiem in performance by the Harvard University Choir and Grand Harmonie under Edward Elton Jones had summoned the capacity-plus crowd. Did some also come to hear how Robert Levin’s 1995 revised version had banished the earlier ministrations of Franz Xaver Süssmayr? I did.
I raved in these pages about Grand Harmonie’s performance of Mozart’s Serenade for 12 Wind Instruments and Contrabass, so my curiosity was piqued about how the ensemble would fare in an accompanying role, and whether its relatively new period-infused string division meets the ensemble’s very high standards. And what of the Harvard University Chorus: Would the singers take on some of the stylistic practices of the Classical winds? And would the sounds be more recognizable to the composer than the versions to which we have today become accustomed, or inured?
The Introit opened with the familiar walking bass of strings, basset horns (this time instead of the stopgap clarinets), and bassoons, sashaying bit more briskly than expected, but after all, this is Mozart shorn of accretions. The the brass blasted their opening cue to the singers without tingling my spine. It was a bit safe and careful and not loud enough in that large, dry, full space. The vocal sound was another matter. Jones has built a fine chorus and drilled the singers into a very well-tuned and elegant machine. The accurate and enveloping vocal efforts made much of the drama of the words and music and left no doubt about surmounting every technical obstacle. Choral legato lines breathed with one breath and fugal passages went by with lightning precision and clear but not overinflected entrances. The chorus also produced every elegant shape that Jones could draw. The men seemed to have absorbed color painting lessons from the pungent winds. We had one decided question, though, based on many previous hearings of the piece: Why the boyish straight singing from the nevertheless ravishingly voiced women? This was not Palestrina.
That the soloists all sang with relaxation and vibrato was unsurprising, since Mozart expected diva interpretations of his vocal writing, and granted, Salzburg and Vienna choirlofts were filled with boys and men, but as Christoph Wolff later pointed out to this reviewer, the question of whether Mozart expected the altos and sopranos in this often concert-work to be women “is difficult (actually impossible) to know, because Mozart did not know who commissioned the work and, therefore, was completely in the dark regarding performing forces. All performances of the work took place after the composer’s death, the first one (opening chorus only!) at a service in St. Michael’s Church on December 11, 1791 organized by the ensemble of the Magic Flute, i.e., surely by women and men. Had the performance taken place at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, boys would have sung the soprano and alto parts. We have no idea who would have sung at Count Walsegg’s performance in 1792. I don’t think it would have mattered to Mozart so long as all involved did a good job.”
The female choristers (and for that matter the stodgy strings—one contrabass was hardly sufficient) should have listened to the estimable soprano soloist Amanda Forsythe’s gorgeous production. Her every mysterious, floated utterance glowed with conviction and rapture. She dominated the quartets not just from the power and focus of her luscious sound, but also from her complete engagement. Which is not to diminish her quartet partners. Indeed, bass Sumner Thompson’s human stentorphone overmatched the sackbuttishish trombone in the Tuba mirum, while tenor Stefan Reed and mezzo-soprano Julia Mintzer contributed handsome inner voices.
Inasmuch as Süssmayr’s version is such an old friend, we will have to listen to many performances of Levin’s before it displaces the familiar one. Yes, Levin is a better Mozart scholar and musicologist (and performer, probably) than Mozart’s student and completer, but we are perhaps less sensitive to errors in voice leading and gratuitous modulations than our scholarly betters. That said, Levin’s version does great service to those who wish for a purified account of the master’s last work. And in a smaller, resonant space one could expect it to produce more of the requisite terrors and consolations that the notes invite. Would we have been more comfortable if the Lacrimosa had ended with Süssmayr’s double amen cadence rather than a speculatively added fugue? Perhaps.
Yet Levin’s completion also supplies many salubrious improvements. The obbligato string parts in the Domine Jesu propelled the journey from the bottomless pit to the holy light like so many flagella. And the fugue on Et semini ejus bespoke Abraham’s promise magnificently—to all, one hopes.
Altogether, it struck one as particularly delicious to have been able to hear what the master must have had in his head. Levin’s provision of the basset horns’ and bassoons’ answers to the urgent pleadings of the vocal quartet in the Benedictus produced shining moments.
We had much to be grateful for in this free, combined student/professional performance. Freshness counts for much, and of it we had aplenty. Fresh-voiced singers of a very high standard supported by colorful winds in a brilliant intellectual’s construct …what more could the music community, academic and general, want?
The encore of Ave verum corpus sounded molded from a single breath.
Received with pleasure and gratitude.