It is refreshing after so many modern attempted completions of Mozart’s Requiem to go back to that by Franz Süssmayr. The detailed extent of his additions has been well known for many years and many have felt that they could do better, understandably so given the weakness of some of those additions. Nonetheless he had the clinching advantage of knowing Mozart which gives his version a status which no modern composer can possibly equal. The present recording makes use of a new edition by David Black of Süssmayr’s version which removes some spurious changes made in the first published edition. Its main, and at times startling, novelty, however, is its attempt to copy the forces and manner of the work’s first public performance. This was in Vienna on 2 January 1793 at a benefit concert for the composer’s widow arranged by Baron van Swieten. John Butt explains in his notes in the booklet that although there is no direct evidence of the forces used on that day it is reasonable to assume that they were similar to those used earlier for the performances of Handel’s works arranged by Mozart. That means a chorus that is relatively small, only 16 in all including and led by the soloists who form part of the chorus. The orchestra has 20 string players and includes a fortepiano as no organ was available at that performance. Despite this however there is no question of the orchestra outweighing the chorus as the latter sing with particularly strong projection. The fortepiano is however to all intents and purposes inaudible.
This is a particularly purposeful and well considered performance. Passages which usually present problems, such as the start of the “Tuba mirum”, are simply made to sound natural and appropriate with some eloquent and expert singing and playing. The soloists may not have the international reputations of their numerous rivals on other discs but they do understand their place in the whole, and sing with sensitivity to the musical line and ensemble. Overall this is indeed an especially coherent performance. There is no sense of apology for the weaker parts of Süssmayr’s completion. I would not want to be without earlier classic performances using larger or differently constituted forces but I expect to get much continuing pleasure and understanding from this version.
Two interesting additional items are included. The setting of Misericordias Domini dates from 1775 but it appears that it was revived for performance in about 1791. It is therefore performed with similar forces to those used in the Requiem and makes an interesting comparison. Finally the opening movements of the Requiem are performed as they might have been at a Requiem Mass for the composer held shortly after his death. This uses fewer singers or strings than in the complete performance and omits some of the wind. Again it makes an interesting comparison but is probably not something to be returned to frequently.
The main performance, however, most certainly is. Its very individual approach to choral sound and to the manner of the work’s performance is endlessly fascinating. Once again, as he has done before with the music of Bach, John Butt has illuminated music by looking in detail at how and where it was performed in specific circumstances at the time of its writing. The result has a combination of purposeful vigour and sensitivity helped by a full and clear recording. Overall it is an essential addition to any collection of Mozart’s choral music.