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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Requiem, K626 [64:00]
Gundula Janowitx, soprano
Christa Ludwig, mezzo soprano
Peter Schreier, tenor
Walter Berry, bass
Chorus of the Vienna Staatsoper
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Karl Böhm
Recorded in the Piaristenkirche, Vienna, December 1971.
DEUTSCHE GRAMOPHON DVD 00440 073 4081 [64:00]

For those readers who are of a certain age, and believe that the only good conductor is a dead conductor, and that Karl Böhm, Bruno Walter and Thomas Beecham were great Mozarteans, kindly stop here, as what is contained in the rest of this review is certain to offend you.

For conductors who came of age in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, Mozartís music sat firmly on the border of what was considered standard repertoire. Oh, sure there was the occasional Bach or Vivaldi concerto trotted out for good measure, but the maestros of this generation made the music of the nineteenth century their stock-in-trade, making Schubert the closest thing to "early music" that they ever touched.

Thus it is with this recording of Mozartís majestic but unfinished Requiem mass, conducted here by the late Karl Böhm and enhanced by a star-studded roster of soloists, all very fine save one.

The cover blurb reads as follows: "Here is the historic 1971 Vienna concert of Mozartís most popular final work (I didnít know he wrote more than one final work to which to compare this one for popularity ...) Ė a monumental drama of the end of time - conducted by the legendary Karl Böhm, one of the twentieth centuryís most outstanding Mozart conductors."


Then we move on to the program notes, which spend a great deal of time extolling the virtues of the maestro, and tell us next to nothing about the music or its origins. I do believe that it is high time that we dispelled the myth that figures such as Böhm were great interpreters of the music of the classical period. Perhaps in 1971, before we had the likes of John Eliot Gardiner, Roger Norrington, even Sir Charles Mackerras, these men might have been the best available Mozart conductors. But much time has passed, much has changed in the realm of performance practice, and a great deal of improvement has been made in the area of choral tone and technique.

Let us now summarize the things that are wrong with this performance. First, Böhmís tempi are funereally slow, no pun intended. Second, the chorus of the Vienna Staatsoper knows only one volume, loud, and only one tone color, ugly. There is never an attempt to blend or to create a unified tone. All this choir can do is attempt to out-shout one another, and the result is hideous. Never does a line grow in the form of an arch. Never is there a dynamic that is much below forte. Contrapuntal passages such as the wonderful Kyrie eleison fugue are obliterated in a raucous bellowing contest with florid passages barked instead of sung. And O, the turgid tempi. At those speeds, it would take a fortnight to get the coffin from the church to the grave site.

The soloists, as aforementioned, are certainly fine, with Gundula Janowitz, Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry producing some splendid, if not unstylistic sounds. As for Peter Schreier, well that poor man has never produced a free and open tone in his life, and he didnít take the noose from round his neck for this concert either. Being that he was young at the time of this recording, his singing is a bit better than it usually is these days, but it is still a constricted, over-bright and nasal tone.
The orchestra is thick and ponderous and they saw and blare away as if they were in the heat of a Wagnerian battle.

In a word, these kinds of performances of music pre-1800 are history, and thatís where they should remain. There is nothing even nostalgic about listening to an hour of such bellicose caterwauling. Consign these things to the dust-bin of history where they belong, and let us enjoy the music as Mozart intended it to be played; with grace, elegance and élan, not like a passing motorcade of earthmoving equipment.

Bag this one, just about every other performance available is better.

Kevin Sutton




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