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A New York Arts Review of TCNJ Choir

A New York Arts Review of TCNJ Choir

StBartNaveDome-300x200Seven Spaces of Mozart’s Requiem

Saturday, October 27, 2012, 7.30 pm
St. Bartholomew’s Church

W.A. Mozart – Andante for flute and orchestra, K. 315
Paula Robison, flute

W.A. Mozart – Requiem, K. 626
Georg Friedrich Haas – 7 Klangräume zu den unvollendeten Fragmenten des Requiems von W. A. Mozart

Tharanga Goonetilleke, Silvie Jensen, Steven Wilson, Peter Stewart, soloists
The College of New Jersey Chorale, John Leonard, director
Argento Chamber Ensemble,
Michel Galante, conductor

Performances that are enlightening to the point of changing our attitudes about the textual and performative conventions of a major work or transforming the way we listen to it are extremely rare. That’s a good thing, in fact, because audiences, who really should be more open to innovation than they are, need and are even entitled to at least some of the comfort tradition offers—not forgetting Otto Klemperer’s famous dictum on the subject…Certain performance traditions change every generation, others perhaps twice as often, yet others less often. The Argento Chamber Ensemble’s recent performance of Georg Friedrich Haas’s 7 Klangräume zu den unvollendeten Fragmenten des Requiems von W. A. Mozart was just such a performance. The composer responsible for the 7 Klangräume, or Seven Soundspaces, Herr Haas, the Argento musicians, and their brilliant conductor, Michael Galante, can share the honors for bringing us Mozart’s Requiem in a new form, adopting a principle which should be even obvious, but which seemed unthinkable because of the consolatory nature of the work and the comforting influence of tradition in its reception. Both the editorial treatment and the performance came together to create an exhilarating new image of the work.

When I finished my review essay on Mozart’s works the year in which he died, 1791, I listened to many of the different versions of the Requiem, to the point that I wasn’t sure if I could hear the work for a long time without unease. The freshness and engagement of Argento’s performance obviated that, but my immediate point is that all of the editions intended to replace the traditional Süssmayr completion were founded on the same premise, to construct a more accurate and musically satisfying score which is not so different  from the familiar version that it will be difficult to perform in the Requiem’s usual contexts. Robert Levin, the editor of the most established of the alternate versions, has made it very clear that his is a performing version. His and most of the others retain some of Süssmayr’s writing. Somehow its blandness and repetition have been accepted as in harmony with the popular conception of the work, sufficiently to inspire the editors to respect it. Has this perhaps earned Süssmayr the honor to be celebrated as the precursor par excellence of Philip Glass and John Adams?

For a fuller account of the circumstances under which Mozart wrote the Requiem, I shall refer you to the aforementioned review article and give here only a quick survey. In July 1791 he was approached by the anonymous representative of Count Franz von Walsegg, a young aristocrat who was known to pay the best composers handsomely for scores which he had performed on his country estate as his own work. He was genuinely distraught by the death of his twenty-year-old wife and wished to have a Requiem as a memorial to her. Although the Count did not identify himself, he and Mozart were fellow-masons, and Mozart must have known him personally. He received an advance from the go-between which was presumably substantial, since Konstanze went to great lengths to hang on to it after his death. This was the first church music Mozart had written in over a decade. His new position as Second Kapellmeister at St. Stephen’s made it necessary for him to conduct Masses and other liturgical music in place of his superior, who was too sick to perform. For this he revived his earlier Salzburg Masses and borrowed scores from Haydn. He shelved the Requiem project, uncommenced, in favor of his new Singspiel for Schikaneder, Die Zauberflöte, a more important and more lucrative commission he had already begun in the spring. Hard upon this, another, even more profitable opera commission came his way, one which promised increased imperial patronage, La Clemenza di Tito,intended for the imperial coronation at Prague. Mozart duly shelved Die Zauberflöte n turn and worked at fever pitch on La Clemenza for its premiere, already scheduled for early September. Mozart’s health had not been good for some time, and overwork contributed to a sick spell only days before it, as he rehearsed the singers and the orchestra. Later in September he was back in Vienna finishing off Die Zauberflöte, which premiered on September 30.

His friend the clarinettist, Anton Stadler, had received particular acclaim at Prague for the solo parts Mozart had written for him in La Clemenza, and Mozart devoted a few weeks of October to writing the Clarinet Concerto for Stadler to take on tour. Only in the latter part of the month did he finally take up the Requiem, as his health began to fail. It is said that Konstanze took the score away from him at one point, as he was becoming delirious. In early November Mozart also managed to write a brief cantata  for his lodge, and to conduct it, before returning to his sickbed and the Requiem, as his condition worsened. By November 20 Mozart was totally bedridden, but continued to work on the Requiem with assistants, above all one of his better pupils, Joseph Leopold Eybler. After the composer’s death, Konstanze called on Eybler to complete the score, but he gave up, presumably knowing that there wasn’t enough material to work with. Konstanze worked her way down the ladder of Mozart’s pupils to Franz Xaver Süssmayr, whose limitations had been the butt of jokes between her and her late husband.

Only the first movement of the Requiem was brought close to completion by Mozart himself. Eybler helped him with six more, carrying the work about halfway. Mozart wrote only a few poignant bars of the Lacrimosa. The rest is Süssmayr’s, including most of the Lacrimosa, the two Offertory movements, the Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and Lux aeterna, a reprise of the first two movements. Early audiences complained of the deficiencies of Süssmayr’s voice-leading and the general weakness of his writing. This erupted in a bitter dispute some forty years later. It is worth noting that movements of the Requiem were performed as Mozart’s own at a memorial service, essentially blowing Walsegg’s cover, but he accepted the score nonetheless and paid Konstanze the balance due.

Over these months Mozart was positioning himself for what we would call a “major breakthrough” in his career, one which would give him an official position commensurate with his fame. Two key elements in this were the unpaid assistant’s job at St. Stephen’s and the commission of La Clemenza di Tito. The new Emperor Leopold II and his Neapolitan wife, Maria Luisa, detested any kind of Germanness in opera, favoring the Italian. They would have preferred to have Salieri write the coronation opera, but he was too busy to take it on. This was a great opportunity for Mozart to establish himself with the new emperor. He knew about the imperial couple’s tastes and intended the opera seria, written in his new, paired-down style, to be as Italianate as possible…but to no avail: Maria Luisa is said to have called it a “porcheria tedesca.”

The ecclesiastical position, although unpaid, was also promising. The incumbent, who was 53 at the time, was in very poor health, too ill to perform, and expected soon to die. A handsome stipend awaited Mozart, and he can only have been delighted by the prospect of this rich fruit falling into his hands. There can be no doubt that overwork played a major role in Mozart’s death, although not as immediately as his physicians’ incompetence, but in pushing himself so drastically he was driven as much by hope for the future as by fear of his creditors. I mention all this specifically because it bears on the premise behind Haas’ view of the Requiem.

Haas, decided to remove all later additions, presumably leaving only Eybler’s contribution in the earlier movements, which would be impractical to expunge. Between the more complete movements and the fragments, stripped bare of completions which create a structural match with the liturgy and cadences to give the movements their self-sufficiency, Haas has inserted his 7 Klangraume, making no attempt to match Mozart’s musical style, but intending to complement and extend the mood of the different sections Mozart wrote with texts referring to the circumstances of his life at the time. Actually, I have seen this expressed two ways, that Haas has injected his Soundspaces between the fragments of Mozart’s Requiem, and conversely, that he has interspersed his with the fragments of Mozart’s Requiem. The official title of the work is slightly ambiguous although leaning toward the recognition of the priority of Mozart’s fragments. In German, the official title reads “7 Klangräume | zu den unvollendeten Fragmenten des Requiems von W. A. Mozart.” The publisher translates it as “accompanying the unfinished fragments…” which implies a slightly more subordinate relation between the two. Perhaps I am niggling here, but my impression after hearing the work/s at St. Bartholomew’s was that, as modest as Herr Haas clearly is, we should recognize a certain independence and equality. Haas, by strictly forbidding any note of Mozart’s Requiem to be played after the Lacrimosa breaks off and insisting that the performance end with his Seventh Soundspace both protects the integrity of Mozart’s writing and asserts the power of his own. When we hear the 7 Klangräume we hear two interlocked, independent, but complementary works.

In the first place, the idea of eliminating the timeworn fillers is excellent, but there has to be something to fill the gaps. In this day and age, it is perhaps not excessive to invite the audience simply to meditate between the fragments, especially in a church performance. As it is, Haas’ Soundspaces are immensely effective in their places. His approach to tonality and timbre are so different from Mozart’s that he can allow himself a full range of expression—and his music is intense—without distracting his audience from the Requiem. (Haas uses the same instrumentation as Mozart, however, with the addition of percussion.) They are in every sense Soundspaces, that is, a system of sounds occupying their own space, which is a different space than that occupied by the classical fragments. Haas’ music has a quasi-magical power to draw us through Mozart’s space into his own, as if we were walking through by the great public buildings of Vienna at night, admiring them, and suddenly became totally immersed the the sky and the stars.

Some may view the night sky as comforting. Others may see in it the violence of the vast forces and energies at work in it. The texts Haas uses point to no comfort and to no cosmic forces. They consist mostly of the petty official language of the acceptance letter of the Vienna City Council of May 9, 1791 approving Mozart’s application for the position of Second Kapellmeister at St. Stephen’s, as mentioned above. Haas waxes indignant over the seemingly ungenerous terms as well as the language of this document, which apparently has not had wide circulation among students of Mozart, as Christoph Wolff asserts in his discussion of the document in his recent book, Mozart at the Gateway to his Fortune (Norton, 2012, pp. 134ff). In agreement with Prof. Wolff, I have already pointed out that this position was a positive step for Mozart. The incumbent, Leopold Hofmann was expected to die soon, leaving Mozart his well-paid position—a reasonable exchange for a few months’ unpaid work. It is interesting that Mozart composed no new music for his new post, but looked to the church music he had written at Salzburg and work by other composers. (How many of us today in the arts work on even large projects gratis?! The publication you are reading right now is only one example.) The only church music he wrote at this time was the Requiem for Walsegg, which of course meant cash money. Haas’ setting of the document proceeds from the hypothesis that “the wounds caused by the social environment constantly went through Mozart’s head [and] were therefore a part of his thinking and feeling…This post was granted to Mozart, but with such bureaucratic brutality, from which such a great lack of understanding is expressed for what art is about.” This reaches a climax “in Klangraum VI, which opens with a scream, the crack of a whip and a ratchet (a “sacred” instrument and therefore wielded by the organist), the full text is performed as a spoken adaptation by all of the voices of the choir.” To call Haas’ interpretation a misinterpretation—which it is—is in harmony with the critical theory fashionable over the last quarter century, but one may equally call it a “personal” interpretation. Haas’ attitude was made possible by the security and dignity bestowed on the artist in our times by academic jobs and grants, but unavailable to Mozart as a transitional figure in the development of the musician from servant to entrepreneur. This has its own cost for the artist, of course, and Haas himself has had a steep and rocky climb to recognition, However particular its perspective, Haas’s music, both expressionistic and exquisite, is deeply moving in itself.

The concert would have been worth hearing even if it had been a mediocre performance, but in fact it was on the very highest musical and spiritual level. The Argento Chamber Ensemble are an elite group, and their point of departure at the very least shows them as the best Juilliard, Oberlin, or whatever other great conservatory can produce. Beyond this learned comprehension and perfect technique they play as a group of virtuoso soloists with the sort of common ear and spirit one hears most often in the great European baroque ensembles. Like the ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble), they bring a level of musicianship to contemporary music that was unheard of a generation ago. Placed in the transept of St. Bartholomew’s their various sonorities—contemporary chamber orchestra and chorus/classical chamber orchestra and chorus—were pleasing and effective, although one can hardly say the acoustics of St. Bart’s are ideal—not that it isn’t a splendid place to hear music, and to do anything else permissible in a consecrated building! Haas fared better than Mozart there. The colors of Haas’s writing came fully to life, while for Mozart the reverberation is just swimmy enough—and more at certain frequencies ranges than others—that one might have wished for more clarity and balance in the acoustic ambience. While Michael Galante and his musicians had to compensate for the acoustics with especially clear, strongly articulated phrasing, it blent well with their approach to the score, which was strong and expressive, working with short and longer phrases. The strings were cohesive, but the colors of the individual sections and players came through, giving the ensemble a rich variety of shadows and highlights. The winds played with marked individual character and sincere expression. Above all, the players and their leader were deeply aware of the seriousness and melancholy beauty of the music, and they played accordingly. One doesn’t often hear even a small orchestra which is inspired in this way. The College of New Jersey Chorale, John Leonard, director, sang with clean diction and articulation, and they were entirely in control of both styles. Tharanga Goonetilleke, Silvie Jensen, Steven Wilson, Peter Stewart proved solid soloists, although Ms. Goonetilleke sang with a fast, tight vibrato, which seemed out of place in Mozart and did not produce the most convincing intonation.

The Requiem and 7 Klangräume were preceded by Mozart’s Andante for flute and orchestra, K. 315, with the great Paula Robison as soloist. Mr. Galante included it to bring some Mozartian sunlight into the otherwise dark proceedings. Ms. Robison’s style, in which she varies extended phrases with internal phrases and astonishing variations of color not only did justice to the highest qualities of the music, but fit perfectly with the vigorous playing of Argento. The musicians energized each other. Her own rich colors and those of the strings complemented each other most wonderfully. The musicians, as one heard from their playing and their comments afterwards, were inspired by Robison, and it was clear that her influence cast its spell over the Requiem that followed.