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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Requiem in d minor (KV 626)

Christine Schäfer, soprano; Bernarda Fink, contralto; Kurt Streit, tenor; Gerald Finley, bass
Arnold-Schönberg-Chor (Erwin Ortner), Concentus musicus Wien
Dir: Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec: Nov 27 - Dec 1, 2003, Vienna, Großer Musikvereinssaal
deutsche harmonia mundi - 82876 58705 2 (50'25)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, arr Peter Lichtenthal: Requiem in d minor (KV 626), arr for string quartet
Kuijken Kwartet
rec: Jan 4 - 6, 2003, St Truiden (Belgium), Academiezaal
Challenge Classics - SA CC 72121

Sigiswald Kuijken, François Fernandez, violin; Marleen Thiers, viola; Wieland Kuijken, cello

Considering the fact that there is a serious overflow of recordings of Mozart's Requiem one wonders what motives are behind making another recording. Sometimes conductors record the work even more than once during their career. That is also the case with Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Since his first recording (*) is still available he must have had a reason to make a new one. And indeed, there are clear differences between the two versions. Generally speaking this new recording is considerably less dramatic and 'operatic' than the first.
This is basically explained by Harnoncourt himself in his personal notes in the booklet: "Mozart and his Requiem: a musician's reflections and feelings". His remarks about the use of the bassett horns give a clue about his new perception of Mozart's Requiem, as he consideres this an instrument "which Mozart returns to time and again as a source of peace and comfort after the outbursts of the choir, of the trumpets and trombones."

This view is responsible for the fact that this recording lacks the sharp edges of the previous one, and that sections like Dies irae, Confutatis and Lacrimosa are less frightening and incisive than in the 1981 recording. Sometimes, like in the Dies irae, the dynamic contrasts are less pronounced, but even where there are strong dynamic shades the impact is more limited, since the sound of the Arnold-Schönberg-Chor is softer and mellower than that of the Choir of the Vienna State Opera.
The less dramatic approach is also the result of Harnoncourt's conviction that in his last works Mozart paves the way to romanticism: "the tonal language becomes more succinct, the melodies more 'catchy', the harmonies and the overall sound more 'Romantic'." It has been noticed in the last 10 years or so that Harnoncourt's approach of baroque and classical music isn't as radically different from the more 'traditional' approach as it once has been. That may be due to his many activities in the field of 19th-century music. One wonders if as a result he approaches Mozart more from a 19th-century perspective - an approach he always criticised earlier in his career.

Anyway, he hastens to add - regarding the use of bassett horns by Mozart - that "these are just my own impressions I am describing here, I'm not attempting a musicological analysis." That's just as well, since I don't think everyone will agree. I certainly don't. It seems to me the use of bassett horns can also be seen as a way to enhance the dark and sombre character of this Requiem. Right from the beginning the bassett horns contribute considerably to the creation of a gloomy atmosphere. And I really can't see how the text of the Dies irae can ever be set in a 'peaceful' way.
In the light of Harnoncourt's views it perhaps doesn't come as a surprise that the more 'relaxed' sections, like the Hostias, the Sanctus and the Benedictus are coming through best. But the Dies irae does sound almost subdued. The first lines of the Confutatis - "confutatis maledictis flammis acribus addictis" - certainly do sound threatening, and there is a good contrast with the next line - "voca me cum benedictis" -, but in the first recording the accents are much sharper and stronger. The same happens in the next section, Lacrimosa: the rhetorical figure of the 'suspiratio' as reflected in the violins is realised very well, and there is a good climax on the third line - "judicandus homo reus" - but there is still much more bite in the 1981 recording.

There are some improvements in comparison with the first recording. The articulation in the fugue of the Kyrie is clear but natural in comparison with the staccato performance of Harnoncourt I. And the Hostias and Hosanna are clearly better realised than in the 1981 recording.
And what has been said about some choral passages shouldn't take anything away from the qualities of the Arnold-Schönberg-Chor. This is an excellent ensemble and stylistically a lot better than the Choir of the Vienna State Opera, whose sound is spoilt by a heavy vibrato.

As far as the soloists are concerned, they are less convincing than those in the 1981 recording. Most of them, in particular the soprano and contralto, use too wide a vibrato. And the four voices don't really blend too well. Gerald Finley uses exaggerated pathos in he opening of Tuba mirum, which is even made worse by the slow tempo.

There is one thing which has remained the same: Harnoncourt uses the version of Franz Beyer, who kept most of the additions from the pen of Mozart's pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr, but has corrected some of his 'mistakes'. I wondered why the booklet refers to this edition as 'new', since it already appeared in 1971.

This certainly is an interesting recording, as almost every recording by Harnoncourt is. It is different from his first recording, but I wouldn't call it 'better'. From the perspective of historical performance practice this recording may even be considered a step backwards rather than forwards.

In the late 18th and early 19th century arrangements were often the only possibility for many people to hear the famous symphonic and vocal works of their time. In particular the compositions of Mozart were very much in demand. As a result there are a large number of arrangements in particular of his operas - or at least some highlights from them - for all kind of ensembles: wind ensembles, flute quartets, quartets of keyboard and strings and also for string quartet.

The Kuijken Kwartet has recorded an arrangement of Mozart's Requiem for string quartet. It was made by the German physician and amateur musician Peter Lichtenthal (1780 - 1853), who from 1810 lived in Milan where Mozart's music was very popular. Apart from the Requiem Lichtenthal arranged several other works by Mozart. It is astonishing how much of the character of the orginal has been kept alive, although one has to get used to adaptations which sound a little strange at first. One example is the duet of bass and trombone at the beginning of the Tuba mirum. Since the string quartet has only one bass instrument, the vocal part is given to a violin, whereas the cello plays the trombone part.

This is a high quality arrangement, which I would rate as high as Haydn's string quartet version of the Sieben Worte. The Kuijken Kwartet gives a very fine performance. The dynamic range of a string quartet may be limited compared with an orchestra which includes 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 bassoons and timpani, the players make the most of what they have at their disposal. The first section has been particularly well done, with a strong outburst after a quiet beginning. Equally impressive are the Recordare and the Hostias. The latter is perhaps a little slowish, but I don't know if Lichtenthal has kept Mozart's tempo indications (here: andante, whereas in this recording it is more like an adagio).

This recording gives a very interesting insight into a widespread practice of the time around 1800 and delivers impressive evidence of the fascination of Mozart's music in a time, when the classical style started to give way to romanticism.

(*) Rachel Yakar, Ortrud Wenkel, Kurt Equiluz, Robert Holl, Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, Concentus musicus Wien, directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec 2292-42911-2 or 0630-10019-2).

Johan van Veen (© 2004)

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