Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Requiem, K626 (comp. Süssmayr) (1791) [48:46]
Jonty Ward (treble); James Swash (alto); Guy Cutting (tenor); Jonathan Howard (bass); Choir of New College Oxford
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Edward Higginbottom
rec. St Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford, 5, 12-13 July 2010. DDD
Latin text and English translation included
NOVUM NCR1383 [48:46]

A note at the front of the booklet includes the following statement

“This distinctive recording of Mozart’s last great work can claim to be unique in two mutually supportive ways: the use of soloists drawn from the chorus, as in Mozart’s day – including young male singers for the soprano and alto solos – combined with the use of a period orchestra. These are no idle historical gestures. The contemporary virtues of this approach are a consistency in the sound-world between chorus and solo ensemble, and a homogeneity of style between period orchestra and period chorus.”

One virtue of this performance that’s not specifically mentioned there, but which should be recorded, I think, is the clarity of texture that results from Edward Higginbottom’s approach to this work. He uses a choir of thirty-six – 15/8/5/8 – and the orchestra comprises 6/6/3/3/1 in the string section plus pairs of basset horns, bassoons and trumpets together with timpani and three trombones. So the band comprises twenty-nine players. These forces produce an effect that is often intimate, though sections such as the ‘Dies Irae’, the tenor and bass passages of the ‘Confutatis’, and the ‘Sanctus’ are all delivered with suitable heft.

The internal balance of the choir is excellent, as is the balance between the singers and the orchestra. The choir does a very good job indeed throughout, not least the trebles who invest the top line with a fine cutting edge, though their sound is never harsh or shrill.

I like most of the speeds chosen by Edward Higginbottom. For example, the tempo he adopts for the ‘Confutatis’ allows just the right amount of breadth and he achieves a good sense of grandeur in the Sanctus without over-inflating the music. Perhaps the pacing of the ‘Hostias’ is just a notch on the fast side – the music sounds a bit too amiable – but I like the tempo of the ‘Osanna’, which is sufficiently lively but avoids any feeling that the music is being pushed too fast.

So, what’s not to like? I’m afraid that, for me, the performance has an Achilles heel in the shape of the solo quartet. I’ve quoted above the rationale for using four members of the chorus and I acknowledge the argument for authenticity. Dr. Higginbottom knows far more about such matters than I do but I would just offer the suggestion that, while Mozart probably did expect church choirs of the day to use their own members as soloists, the solo parts in the Requiem have a definite operatic quality – and dimension – to them. Might it not be possible that Mozart hoped that suitable voices would be employed to serve in his quartet?

As it is, I’m afraid the New College quartet disappoint. None of them sing badly but they just lack the tonal depth and the histrionic characteristics that this music seems to demand. I readily acknowledge the counter-argument that hearing Big Name soloists in this music is simply what we’re used to. Jonty Ward is a gifted treble, who sings with pure tone and spot-on intonation while Guy Cutting’s tenor has a good ring – he’s the best of the quartet. On the other hand the alto, James Swash, sings tidily but his tone is rather pallid while bass Jonathan Howard simply lacks the vocal presence that his part demands – the ‘Tuba mirum’ is a major disappointment. None of the quartet brings sufficient vocal character to the ‘Recordare’ and in the ‘Sed signifier Michael’ passage in the Offertorium the alto and bass parts only register weakly.

All this is a great pity since I’ve admired so many recordings by Dr Higginbottom and his fine choir over the years. This reading of the Mozart Requiem is interesting as a musical experiment and, as such, would have been enjoyable to hear as a one-off concert event but I’m afraid that, for all its positive points – and there are many, as I’ve tried to point out - it doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of repeated domestic listening. It must be said also that at less than fifty minutes duration the disc is poor value for money.

If you are tempted, the recorded sound is clear and good and the documentation, which includes a detailed essay by Dr Higginbottom, is excellent.

John Quinn

A reading of the Mozart Requiem that, for all its positive points, doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of repeated domestic listening.