August 29, 2013
(++++) REQUIEMS AND BEYOND
Bruckner: Symphony No. 7. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stanisław Skrowaczewski. LPO. $16.99.
Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem. Anna Lucia Richter, soprano; Stephan Genz, baritone; MDR Leipzig Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $9.99.
Mozart: Requiem. Anna Prohaska, soprano; Sara Mingardo, alto; Maximilian Schmitt, tenor; René Pape, bass; Bavarian Radio Choir, Swedish Radio Choir and Lucerne Festival Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado. Accentus Music Blu-ray Disc. $39.99.
Bruckner wrote three Masses and a Te Deum, but never a Requiem. Yet this highly religious composer, who dedicated more than one composition to God, certainly had the sensibility to create a Requiem if he had wanted to – as is shown in the second movement of his Symphony No. 7, written in the knowledge that his idol, Wagner, had not long to live. The symphony’s first performance, a huge triumph for Bruckner, came in 1884, the year after Wagner’s death, but whether there was anything bittersweet for the composer on the occasion is unknown. The Seventh remains one of Bruckner’s most popular symphonies and one of his most effective, and Stanisław Skrowaczewski gives it a highly impassioned, yet stately, performance in a live recording from October 2012 – just weeks after this distinguished conductor’s 89th birthday. As with most Bruckner symphonies, there are differing and sometimes competing versions of the Seventh available, the original 1883 one (played at the première) unfortunately being lost. The 1944 Haas edition and 1954 one from Nowak are the two most often performed, but Skrowaczewski has made his own, and uses it in this performance. Details of the differences will not be apparent to most listeners, although Skrowaczewski does retain the cymbal clash and other percussion at the climax of the Adagio (as does Nowak but not Haas). What will be clear to listeners is that Skrowaczewski has a determinedly old-fashioned and, in its way, highly effective approach to the symphony, seeing it as a glorious edifice whose grandeur is its primary feature and whose Wagner-requiem second movement is its heart if not its climax. Stately, well-paced (on the slow side but without dragging), and played with warmth and sonic beauty by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, this Bruckner Seventh is testimony both to Skrowaczewski’s thoughtfulness in handling the works of this composer and to the composer/conductor’s own understanding of how to pace and build a grand work that sustains emotionally from start to finish.
Marin Alsop could use some lessons from Skrowaczewski. Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem predates Bruckner’s Seventh by some 15 years and is its equal in scope and scale. But Alsop seems somewhat impatient with it, offering a performance that runs less than 65 minutes and often seems superficial if not overtly rushed. Alsop often evinces a certain discomfort with standard-repertoire works, especially those of the Romantic era, tending to perform them dutifully but without any special insight. She extracts very fine playing from her forces here – soloists, chorus and orchestra all are responsive, involved and clearly committed to the music – but the emotional core of this (+++) reading is not what it should be. Brahms’ work is quite different from traditional Catholic Requiems, using texts from Luther’s translation of the Bible and focusing more on the living who must go on after the death of a loved one than on the dead and the hope of their eventual resurrection. Some performances of Brahms’ work make it almost turgid, and its tempos can be painfully slow in some conductors’ readings; certainly Alsop cannot be accused of those excesses. But she tends to go too far in the opposite direction, never into actual lightness – the work scarcely permits that – but into a kind of blasé near-indifference that prevents the heartfelt sentiments of Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras and Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit from coming through as effectively as they can. Certainly this performance is well played and well sung, but it is not emotionally evocative or convincing in the way that Ein Deutsches Requiem can be, and does not leave listeners feeling either especially sad or particularly uplifted. The beauties of the music come through, but its depths do not.
One of the great settings of the traditional Catholic Requiem is Mozart’s, and it does get a highly effective reading in a live recording from the Lucerne Festival in August 2012. Mozart’s incomplete Requiem is a surprisingly hopeful work, and it is its essence of forgiveness and consolation on which Claudio Abbado focuses to fine effect in this (++++) performance. Much of the credit for the quality here goes to the quartet of soloists: Anna Prohaska, Sara Mingardo, Maximilian Schmitt and René Pape are all first-class singers, and Abbado melds them skillfully in sections whose tonal beauty is matched by the expressiveness of the music throughout. Abbado does not use the most commonly heard version of this work, the one finished by Franz Xaver Süssmayr: the Sanctus here was completed by Robert Levin. The non-Mozart potions of the music are, in any case, true to the form and orchestration of what Mozart himself wrote. What is most impressive here is that Abbado clearly shapes the work as a totality, despite its incompleteness, and by focusing on consoling rather than mourning, he produces a reading that makes the promise of redemption the central element of the music, while not ignoring the sadness that lies at the heart of every Requiem, by Mozart or anyone else. The biggest failing of the recording is not in the performance but in the pricing: the 60-minute Requiem is the only work here, and $40 for a Blu-ray Disc of this single work – which is available in many other, equally fine renditions – seems excessive. Listeners who want to see as well as hear this specific performance and who strongly favor the Blu-ray format will, however, find Abbado’s reading a top-notch one visually and sonically as well as musically.