Sunday, April 18, 2010

Music review: Master Chorale's Mozart Requiem solid, but too cautious

Joseph Lange’s 1783 unfinished portrait of his
brother-in-law, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

By Greg Stepanich

One of the more tantalizing aspects of the career of Mozart is his work in sacred music,‭ ‬and that‭’‬s‭ ‬primarily because it feels somewhat unfulfilled.

There is much great music in the‭ ‬Coronation‭ ‬Mass and‭ ‬even in‭ ‬the epistle sonatas,‭ ‬and‭ ‬choral ensembles across the land would be lost without the motet‭ ‬Ave verum corpus,‭ ‬but the finest of his sacred music was unfinished:‭ ‬The Mass in C minor,‭ ‬and the‭ ‬Requiem,‭ ‬left incomplete at his early death in‭ ‬1791.‭ ‬Both works,‭ ‬as it happens,‭ ‬have been given‭ ‬contemporary completions by the formidable pianist and‭ ‬Mozart scholar Robert Levin.

The Master Chorale of South Florida has now performed both of these completions,‭ ‬the C minor mass a couple‭ ‬of‭ ‬seasons ago,‭ ‬and the Requiem this weekend.‭ ‬In concerts Friday,‭ ‬Saturday,‭ ‬and this afternoon,‭ ‬the chorus paired the Requiem with the early‭ ‬Te‭ ‬Deum‭ (‬K.‭ ‬141‭)‬,‭ ‬written in‭ ‬1769‭ ‬when Mozart was only‭ ‬13‭ ‬and back in Salzburg,‭ ‬where he and his father Leopold were planning their next move.

Joined by the Boca Symphonia,‭ ‬chorale director Joshua Habermann led decent,‭ ‬unobjectionable readings of both these works Saturday night at the Boca Raton Community High School‭’‬s Lindgren Auditorium.‭ ‬The Levin completion is quite logical and also very modest‭; ‬his major contribution is the‭ ‬Amen‭ ‬fugue at the end of the Sequence.‭ ‬Levin‭’‬s fugue is based on a Mozart sketch discovered in the‭ ‬1960s,‭ ‬and it‭’‬s a very good one,‭ ‬persuasive,‭ ‬entirely plausible and‭ ‬suitably grand.

Assistant conductor Richard Skirpan led the chorale for the‭ ‬Te Deum,‭ ‬a brief‭ ‬work modeled‭ (‬as‭ ‬is the opening of the‭ ‬Requiem‭) ‬on a work by Michael Haydn.‭ ‬It‭’‬s well-written and appropriately joyous,‭ ‬and the chorus sounded strong in the first and third sections,‭ ‬and surprisingly soft in the middle for such a large group:‭ ‬the program roster lists‭ ‬114‭ ‬names.

While the sound was big and diction was clear,‭ ‬the blend of all those voices was somewhat ragged at the high and low ends,‭ ‬and the Symphonia,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬was not consistently smooth,‭ ‬which made the piece sound more unfocused than it really‭ ‬is.‭ ‬Skirpan‭’‬s tempos were good,‭ ‬and his direction clean and clear.

For the‭ ‬Requiem,‭ ‬the chorale and orchestra were joined by four soloists‭ ‬--‭ ‬soprano Susan Williams,‭ ‬mezzo Misty Bermudez,‭ ‬tenor Tony Boutté and‭ ‬bass Teppei Kono.‭ ‬Williams has a sweet,‭ ‬smallish voice,‭ ‬as does Boutté,‭ ‬and both sang with professional polish.‭ ‬Kono has a bigger,‭ ‬rounder sound,‭ ‬and he sang well in the‭ ‬Tuba mirum,‭ ‬though the trombone soloist almost overwhelmed him at times.‭ ‬Bermudez,‭ ‬a familiar feature at Seraphic Fire concerts,‭ ‬has a lovely dark coloring to her voice that was especially compelling here.

Habermann‭ ‬evidently‭ ‬is‭ ‬a stickler for precision,‭ ‬and‭ ‬the chorale‭’‬s entrances were sharp and unhesitating.‭ ‬In the past,‭ ‬this has been a chorus with a weaker male contingent,‭ ‬but Saturday the men sounded a good bit stronger,‭ ‬and with the sole exception of some tenor softness in the higher registers here and there,‭ ‬the men held up their end of things with impressive solidity.

In general,‭ ‬this was a reading of the‭ ‬Requiem that was very much along traditional lines,‭ ‬with tempos on the slow side,‭ ‬and a‭ ‬very cautious‭ ‬approach‭ ‬to the music-making.‭ ‬The‭ ‬Dies irae,‭ ‬for example,‭ ‬started‭ ‬with a punch but ended up being large rather than violently dramatic,‭ ‬and while‭ ‬that section doesn‭’‬t have the‭ ‬gigantism of Romantic masses for the dead of Berlioz or Verdi,‭ ‬it does have something Cherubini mostly doesn‭’‬t,‭ ‬and that‭’‬s inner fire.‭ ‬

The‭ ‬same goes for‭ ‬the‭ ‬Confutatis,‭ ‬which needed some more drive and vigor to make the right contrast with the‭ ‬passages‭ ‬beginning‭ ‬Voca me,‭ ‬in which the supplicant pleads for mercy as his life weighs in the balance between redemption and perdition.

Despite its incomplete nature,‭ ‬this is music‭ ‬that‭ ‬always‭ ‬makes a strong impression,‭ ‬and Levin‭’‬s‭ ‬additions are respectful enough not to detract from its essential power‭ (‬and‭ ‬I would contend that the‭ ‬Amen fugue makes this completion to be preferred‭)‬.‭ ‬We‭’‬ll never know what Mozart would have made of‭ ‬the work had he lived even a month or two longer,‭ ‬but the text itself,‭ ‬and‭ ‬the way the composer has set it already,‭ ‬should‭ ‬have led to a Master Chorale performance that was a little less‭ ‬solemn and‭ ‬careful,‭ ‬and a little more urgent,‭ ‬a little more‭ ‬vital.

The Master Chorale of South Florida‭’‬s next season will contain two seminal‭ ‬masterworks.‭ ‬Haydn‭’‬s oratorio‭ ‬The Creation is‭ ‬scheduled‭ ‬for Nov.‭ ‬19-21,‭ ‬and‭ ‬the‭ ‬Requiem of Verdi is set for March‭ ‬25-27,‭ ‬2011.‭ ‬For more information,‭ ‬call‭ ‬954-418-6232.

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