Thursday, April 06, 2006

Learning to Love the Requiem

Mozart's, that is.

No, it's true, I never liked the piece. I sang it some years back and it failed to grow on me, and learning a work for performance normally sets the piece deep in my heart. It was all too obvious where Mozart left off and Sussmayr took over, the orchestration seemed clumsy, and I just could not stomach the sweeter sections of the piece. I heard it a few years ago, performed by the California Bach Society, and when a friend who then sang with them asked me what I thought, "because I know you'll be honest," I shook my head and said "Fine performance, but I just can't stand the piece."


A friend suggested some time ago that I check out Hogwood's recording, and offered to lend me his copy. I turned white and demurred; he became just a bit more insistent. Well, okay, why not, I thought, and took the CD, even though I was dubious.


Hogwood's performance makes the piece work for me, to the point that it recently lived in my car stereo for a couple of weeks. To the point that one day I hit repeat five times after the "Dies irae."

If I'm remembering the liner notes correctly - they're in California and I'm in New Jersey just now - the edition is one that attempts to strip out as much Sussmayr as possible. That certainly helps. But it's what Hogwood and his performers do with the piece that makes the recording so great.

To start with, there's the transparent clarity of both the orchestra and the chorus. I love the sound of English choruses with boys singing the soprano and alto parts - and those choruses are almost always superbly trained. On this recording, the Westminster Cathedral Boys Chorus and Academy of Ancient Music Chorus are nearly perfect. Every word is clear, every attack snaps, every cutoff is clean, every sibilant the same length.

Most important, though, are the choices Hogwood makes. His tempos are ideal; he respects Mozart's proportions and doesn't try to inflate the piece into a giant Romantic drama. He conducts crisply at all tempos, and the music never bogs down or loses the pulse. And so, the Requiem speaks for itself, classically.

I think there's only one serious problem with the recording: Emma Kirkby. One of the boys might as well have stepped out of the chorus for the soprano solos, for all the impact she makes with that mousy little voice. She's utterly out of scale with Carolyn Watkinson, the alto soloist, who sounds like an adult, and you can hear the other soloists holding back to make sure Kirkby is audible when the quartet is singing.

Oh, well - it's easy enough to ignore her. The real stars of the show are Hogwood, and his marvelous orchestra and chorus, and I'm glad to finally like, if not quite love, K. 626.

Updated because I managed to date this posting in the future.

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