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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART [1756-1791]
Vesperae solennes de confessore in C major, KV 339 (1780) [28:30]
Requiem in D minor, KV 626 (1791) [44:48]
Sigismund Ritter von NEUKOMM [1778-1858]
Libera me, Domine (1821) [7:10]
Christina Landshamer, soprano; Sophie Harmsen, mezzosoprano; Julian Prégardien, tenor; Tareq Nazmi, bass; Nikolaus Pfannkuch, Cantor of the antiphons
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/Howard Arman
Rec. 25 January 2020, Herkulessaal of Munich Residenz
BR KLASSIK 900926 [80:38 + 73:03]

Mozart’s final work, his Requiem Mass, is one of classical music’s enduring puzzles. What can be made of it from the fragments that Mozart left on his deathbed? How can one solve it without being Mozart? Many have tried to improve upon Franz Xaver Süßmayr, who did the first completion of Mozart’s interrupted masterpiece. Süßmayr at least had the benefit of having worked closely under Mozart as copyist and assistant, as well as being his friend.

Howard Arman takes up the challenge with a novel approach of putting the Requiem itself into a liturgical context. Arman uses as an opening work a revised version of Mozart’s own Vesperae solennes de confessore, KV 339, which is a setting of five psalms, culminating in a Magnificat. Arman inserts before each of these pieces a chanted antiphon of his own composition (sung here by Nikolaus Pfannkuch, who does a creditable job with the pseudo-Gregorian chant).

The Requiem Mass itself then follows. Mozart only fully orchestrated the first 48 bars of the piece, leaving a skeletal draft of the Kyrie, Sequenz and Offertorium. Arman uses a hybrid approach, retaining Süßmayr’s original compositions in the later movements of the Mass (the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei), but taking Mozart’s fragments and filling in the blanks of those himself. At times, this amounts to near composition where Mozart has left very little. Arman also incorporates at the end of the Sequenz the Amen fugue sketches that some have hypothesized to have been meant by Mozart for the Requiem.

The final section is Sigismund Ritter von Neukomm’s movement composed to conclude the Requiem from a liturgical standpoint, Libera ma Domine. Although it was written thirty years after Mozart’s death, it is stylistically quite in harmony with Mozart/Süßmayr/Arman, and fits seamlessly into the programme.

I’m not quite convinced by the use of the Vesperae, frankly. They were composed over a decade before the Requiem (one of the last choral pieces Mozart wrote for the Salzburg cathedral), and their theatrical presentation seems like an ill fit with the somber opening of the Requiem. It seems as if Arman was going for the maximum contrast, and in that he certainly succeeded.

Arman’s realization of the Requiem comes across much better. His orchestration may be a bit sparer than Süßmayr’s, but it seems appropriate for the most part, and he avoids introducing any anachronisms, or at least any that were blatant enough for me to notice. Arman’s conducting emphasizes the motif of low quaver – high quaver – low quaver that opens the Requiem and which repeats throughout as a unifying device. This motif has always conjured to my mind the fall of a persistent rain on a parade of mourners, effectively adding to the gloom of the proceedings.

There is very little to complain about in the performances, which are effective and emotional throughout. The Bavarian Radio Chorus sounds terrific both in the more bombastic sections as well as the quieter ones. Julian Prégardien is almost overwhelming with his powerful tenor voice. Unfortunately, bass Tareq Nazmi, by contrast, cannot begin to keep up with Prégardien. Nazmi also is fairly weak in the lower range, coming across as more of a baritone than a true bass.

This recorded performance was a live concert in memoriam of conductor Mariss Jansons. While the sound from Bavarian Radio is quite good, and there is no audience noise whatsoever, the presentation suffers somewhat from dynamic compression. One can tell from the varying attacks on notes that some are meant to be louder, but they all end up sounding about the same volume. Perhaps this was a compromise for radio broadcast with its limited range, but the results are less than happy on disc.

The second CD is an episode from the Wege zur Musik (Way to the Music) series concentrating on the Mozart Requiem. Snippets of actors portraying Mozart, his wife Costanze, and others are interspersed with interview segments with Howard Arman about the music. The entire thing is in German, with brief musical examples throughout. I don’t believe Arman is a native German speaker; in any event, he speaks slowly and deliberately enough that I was able to make out most of what he was saying with my rudimentary German. Non-German speakers will probably regard this second disc only as a curiosity. An English-friendly translated transcript would have been nice to include either with the disc or on BR Klassik’s website.

BR Klassik includes a fairly substantial 48-page booklet with notes and biographies, plus the Latin texts, all in both German and English.

Mark S. Zimmer

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