in: Reviews

October 24, 2017

Mozart’s Last Symphonic and Choral Utterances

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Mozart’s death mask

With its dark harmonies and pessimistic mood, set by an agitated and irregular opening theme that enters surreptitiously with three successive upbeats, Mozart’s G Minor Symphony (KV 550) has been hailed over a period of 250 years as a harbinger of Romanticism. Yet Robert Schumann seems to have rejected that view, noting the symphony’s “Greek lightness and grace.” Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque succeeded in bringing out both darkness and light in a performance in an all-Mozart concert at Jordan Hall last weekend. This writer attended on Sunday.

Mozart wrote the second of three symphonies —the last he would compose— written during the summer of 1788 and probably intended it for presentation at a concert series organized by his patron Baron Gottfried van Swieten; the G Minor Symphony was originally scored for flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings. Mozart later added a pair of clarinets; Boston Baroque played the earlier version without this addition. The orchestra of period instruments included 7 first and 6 second violins, headed by Christina Day Martinson and Sarah Darling, and seated either side of the conductor with violas and cellos between them and winds behind them. In the first movement, Pearlman chose a tempo that was fast enough to convey the 2/2 notation as two beats per measure, yet never sounded hurried. Strong contrasts in dynamics and scoring highlighted the underlying logic and symmetry of individual phrases and larger sections. Intensity increased in the development section featuring strident winds and horns, followed by more thematic and orchestral enrichment in the return and dramatic closing. In the second movement, Andante, Pearlman maintained a graceful two-beats-per-measure 6/8 tempo while bring out the many exquisite details of figuration, scoring, counterpoint, and dynamics. A forthright approach to disruptive syncopations and irregular phrase structure in the Menuetto underlined its air of combat and conflict, far from the graceful mood of a courtly dance. Rustic nostalgia took over in the Trio with the winds, and finally the horns, taking the lead. In the Finale, Allegro assai, an opening “rocket” headed by the first violins, piano, answered by a raucous tutti, established a pattern of balance and symmetry that was overruled in the development by the transformation of the “rocket” theme into harsh tutti outbursts, forte, outlining wildly dissonant intervals. Pearlman made the most of the contrast between the symmetry of the opening and the pileup of intensified hammering at the end.

Mozart composed the solo motet Exultate, jubilate (Rejoice,shout) in January 1773 when he was just 16, shortly after the premiere of his opera Lucio Silla in Milan. He had met and admired the celebrated castrato Venanzio Rauzzini, who sang the title role in the opera, and the motet was composed with this singer’s extraordinary range and power in mind. Soprano soloist Amanda Forsythe showed off both the beauty of her voice and her virtuosic musicianship. In the first section she competed, concertato style, with a pair of oboes, a pair of horns, strings in four parts, and continuo. If occasionally her lowest notes were not quite audible, her effortless roulades and stylistically apt cadenza more than made up for them. The next section, a recitative, introduced the lilting Andante aria, “Tu virginum corona” (Thou crown of virgins), accompanied by four-part strings and continuo. Here one could only marvel at Forsythe’s beautifully modulated entries that swelled from pianissimo to mezzo forte and from straight tone to vibrato on a single note, and admire her inventive cadential ornamentation. The jubilant “Alleluia” returned to the concertato texture of the opening movement. Rivalling the brilliance of the oboes and horns in motivic exchange, and tossing off breakneck roulades with panache, Forsythe brought astonishing rhythmic vitality to the articulation of a single triumphant word.

Ever since Mozart died at 36 leaving his Requiem Mass unfinished, attempts have been made to complete it. Deception of one kind or another regarding the Requiem was present from the start, beginning with the commission from Count Franz von Walsegg, who intended to pass it off as his own composition in memory of his deceased wife. Mozart’s widow Constanze, in need of the fee from the commission, engaged his assistant Franz Xaver Süssmayr to complete the work from Mozart’s drafts and sketches. In Mozart’s manuscript, only the opening Introit (Requiem aeternam) was mostly completed. For the following sections (the Kyrie, the long Sequence in several parts, and the Offertory) he left drafts that included the voice parts, the bass line, and hints of the orchestration. The Lacrimosa (the final stanza of the Sequence) breaks off after only 8 measures, and the final movements (Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Lux aeterna, and Cum sanctis tuis) were not even begun. Süssmayr completed the orchestration from the drafts, finished the Lacrimosa, and composed the Sanctus and Benedictus. He set the texts of the final movements by adapting Mozart’s music from earlier portions of the Requiem. Still, he may have overstated his claims to authorship when, in an 1801 letter to the publisher Breitkopf & Härtel, he declared that he could not “stand by silently and allow a work to be published as [Mozart’s] when the greater part of it is mine.”

Amanda Forsyth (file photo)

During the 19th century, E.T.A.Hoffmann and Robert Schumann, among others, praised Süssmayr’s version, which Brahms preserved unquestioned in the Breitkopf & Härtel Complete Edition of Mozart’s works from the 1870s. Serious criticism of Süssmayr’s version of the Requiem only began in the latter half of the 20th century, giving rise to several attempts at re-orchestration and completion in recent decades. Pearlman chose the edition by pianist and Mozart scholar Robert Levin, “on its scholarly grounding” and its “respect for the history of the work and its effort to repair and improve the familiar Süssmayr versions, rather than to replace it.” Levin retained, for example, Süssmayr’s adaptation of the Dies irae opening to the opening of the Sanctus but corrected his parallel fifths and octaves and unconvincing modulations. He substituted an extended “Hosanna” fugue for Süssmayr’s brief conclusion, and worked material from a fragmentary sketch in Mozart’s hand discovered in 1963 into a full-fledged Amen fugue at the end of the Lacrimosa. He also refined Süssmayr’s orchestration to conform to Mozart’s idiomatic practice.

Mozart’s Requiem is primarily a choral work in the Viennese tradition of concerted church music, and Boston Baroque’s mixed choir of 25 sang with warmth and sensitivity in full-voiced chordal sections and rigorous precision in fugal and declamatory passages. Thanks to Pearlman’s pacing in tempos that were lively but never hurried, soprano notes floated without being forced, altos were clear, and tenors and basses resounding. German-style Latin pronunciation enlivened rhythmic articulation. The four soloists — Amanda Forsythe, soprano; Anne McMahon Quintero, mezzo, Thomas Cooley, tenor, and Kevin Deas, baritone — were well matched and made a fine quartet. Highlights of the Tuba mirum section of the Sequence were the successive solo stanzas by bass, tenor, mezzo, and soprano; Steven Lundahl was the trombone soloist in resonant partnership with Kevin Deas. Gritty counterpoint for the trio of two basset horns and cello added color to the restrained opening of the Recordare. In the Confutatis, stern pronouncement against the condemned by the male voices was pitted against anguished supplication in the sopranos and altos. And Pearlman and the Boston Baroque musicians made Levin’s fugues on the Lacrimosa Amen and the Sanctus Hosanna sound far more convincing than Süssmayr’s truncated offerings. Although there will never be a last word on Mozart’s last work, this fine performance evinced a productive, moving collaboration among scholars and players.

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

2 Comments

  1. One of the many wonderful things about writing for BMInt — hint, hint — is having leisurely space to expound, within limits, historically and otherwise, as cannot be done within a print publication’s 500-word limit.

    (This is apart from the publisher’s geniality, the occasionally deft line editing, and pointed comments.)

    Comment by david moran — October 26, 2017 at 2:14 pm

  2. Pitch for this performance was A=430.

    Comment by Laura Prichard — October 28, 2017 at 10:08 pm

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