Mozart Sacred Choral Works

Author: 
Alan Blyth

Mozart Sacred Choral Works

  • Requiem
  • Ave verum corpus
  • Requiem
  • Ave verum corpus

It seems that there is a new recording of this work about every second month. Where all the buyers come from to justify such profligacy I have no idea. What's even stranger is that there are no fewer than three versions on Philips alone (Schreier, Davis and Gardiner), all of them recommendable in their chosen ways. As it happens practically every reading on disc that I know of is more or less worthy of the work in most respects, so it is very much a case of paying your money and making your choice with a little guidance of the kind of performance you will encounter in each case.
The two new ones listed above, for instance, are very different in character yet I found them both enjoyable. Muti uses the alert and responsive Swedish choirs I so much enjoyed in his EMI version of Verdi's Four Sacred Pieces. His is a big-scale reading, dramatically inclined, but never excessively so. The Hungarian performance is also large in concept and rather grander. It has much more atmosphere as a recording by virtue of being made, I would judge, in a church. I am not usually one for too much reverberation, but I must admit that here I found the sense of being almost in a cathedral enhanced the already excellent quality of the singing and playing. Ferencsik's reading is reverential, sometimes a little on the slow side but always phrased with meaning. The contrast between the two readings can be judged in the very different tempos adopted for the ''Confutatis'' and ''Lacrimosa''. Ferencsik is slow and solemn in the first, Muti fast and histrionic. In the second, Muti again makes an almost operatic point by taking a very measured speed while the Hungarian conductor allows the movement to flow more naturally.
In the ''Domine Jesu'', Ferencsik tends to be the ponderous one, Muti allowing a greater flow to the music. But here the bigger contrasts come with two of the other versions. Schreier is decidedly brisker than either of the new conductors, and tends to be slightly more objective in his approach (as throughout) while gaining a performance more decisive in rhythm and pointing. But none of these is half as interventionist as Gardiner in his original-instrument version (the two types of performance should not be divorced from one another). In his ''Domine Jesu'', the speed is really quick, the articulation and attack almost mannered in its ferocity. Davis is perhaps the safest via media.
When it comes to the respective choirs, there are again substantial differences. The Hungarian Radio sound the largest yet their light and flexible singing never gives the impression of too much weight as sometimes happens. The Stockholm group, pleasing as they are in tone and fresh in phrasing, just yield place to Schreier's famous Leipzig Radio Chorus. Gardiner's choir is the smallest and also the most deft. Davis's John Alldis Choir sing well enough but in direct comparisons with the modern versions, I did find their 1968 recording somewhat occluded.
Although the soloists' role in this work is not large, they can make or mar a performance. I regret to say that the variable singing on the Hungaroton virtually rules it out of court, and I am not altogether happy with the quartet on the EMI. Patrizia Pace has a remarkably white tone for an Italian and it blends ill with Meier's somewhat fruity mezzo. Both men are excellent and Morris is the only bass other than Willard White on the Gardiner to take the opening phrase of ''Tuba mirum'' in one breath. Karajan's is flawed by his out-of-tune bass (DG). Schreier's quartet has no weaknesses, unless it be Adam's slightly gravelly bass. Both Davis and Gardiner, especially the former, have quartets that are both satisfactory as a team and positive and pleasing as individuals.
Indeed, as SS pointed out in February, the mid-price Davis/Philips, apart from my reservations about the recording, remains an involving and central performance, which neither of the new ones surpasses, in spite of many delights therein (I pass up the suggestion of other-worldly timelessness on Hungaroton with much regret). Karajan is severe and Olympian. If I feel in the mood for something more precise than any of these offers, and with superior singing and playing, I would still opt for Schreier. Gardiner's, on the other hand, is the most exhilarating experience of this music a bracing antidote to the rest.'

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