Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s recent choral projects seem consciously to be reconciling some of the treasured values of his upbringing (especially from his time with the Vienna Symphony) alongside deeply held beliefs as to how a famous score can be illuminated through a ‘period’ lens. This new recording integrates past and present in a way which Harnoncourt’s previous reading from over 20 years ago simply couldn’t: the tub-thumping ’80s had a way to go and points still had to be made. The main difference between the two is the interpretative assurance of his latest version; it is far more perspicacious in its message, the articulation characterising the music with greater rhetorical awareness.
In the feature interview (see page 26), Harnoncourt refers to his time with Ferenc Fricsay and it is perhaps no coincidence that Fricsay’s startlingly vital recording of the Requiem (1951; DG, 12/60 – nla) asks similarly tough questions for the living as for the dead. Fricsay constructs his edifice through lean incandescent lines, counterpoints whose sinewy character becomes gradually mollified towards something of true personal significance. If the means are often different (although there is a touch of portamento in both), the ends are often strikingly similar: both aptly reflect Harnoncourt’s view of Mozart meekly asking ‘what will happen with me’?
Whilst the Dies Irae is a set-piece of graphic, biting and eerie terror (the trumpets are as wildly menacing as you’ll hear), the previous Kyrie is treated as a quasi-liturgical introit, unfolding gradually with an admirably understated elegance. The Tuba Mirum is also unusual, less statuesque than normal (no Commendatore here) with a highly-charged trombone solo both triumphant and imploring. Then there are the solo singers who, individually and collectively, are tinged with a glow of deep regret. With the risk of exhausting the Fricsay comparison, his soloists sing with a similarly palpable sense of inter-dependent ensemble and sustained poignancy. To highlight one singer here above the other would serve no purpose.
There is, as you would expect from Harnoncourt, a studied punchiness (Rex tremendae is a spikey ‘alla Francese’ affair) and the Confutatis leaves us with a series of striking contrasts, with ‘salva me’ as a gesture of impending loneliness for the Recordare: the strings shadows the soloists with questing and characterful figures, belying the restless and unsentimental approach to the Lacrimosa. The Arnold Schoenberg Choir are highly responsive in the modern way and yet un-modish in their soft-edged attack and heterogeneous timbre.
Harnoncourt conceives of an almost jocular majesty in the Domine Jesu (arguably pushed ahead too far in the ‘Quam olim Abrahae’) and an immaculate Benedictus. Of course, there had to be one moment for the iconoclast in him: here it is the Hostias, taken at one-in-a-bar, almost twice the speed of his earlier version, and anyone else’s for that matter. It sounds like, ‘Too obviously Süssmayr, better have it done with’! This is not, then, a Requiem which comforts and stirs in all the expected ways and yet the strength of vision is ultimately winning. Not least, Harnoncourt allows a curious and enigmatic undertow of human vulnerability to emerge, one which presents Mozart’s valedictory essay in a striking new light.