By Douglas Neslund
Sunday was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 257th birthday, an occasion surely worthy of honor with a performance of his 39th Symphony (Köchel 543) and his enigmatic and truncated Requiem in D minor (K. 626), on this occasion “edited and completed” by Robert Levin, with most of the approved-by-repetition Süßmayr completions more or less intact.
The guest conductor of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in concelebration was the iconic 82-year old German conductor Helmuth Rilling. Choral responsibilities for the Requiem were taken by The University of Southern California Thornton Chamber Singers, prepared by Dr. Jo-Michael Scheibe. The solo quartet were: Stacey Tappan, soprano; Callista Hoffman, alto; Nicholas Phan, tenor; and Michael Dean, bass.
Mr. Rilling conducts with a loose baton that often wanders between thrusting, emphatic arses, leaving the orchestra to carry on, the better not to watch the bobbing baton. Unfortunately, the opening phrase of the symphony was a bit of a muddle, but by the second go-around, order was restored. Mozart lived and composed in the midst of the Classical period in which the emotional excesses of the Baroque period were considered passé, tempi restored to regularity, and cadences played without attenuating the tempo. This also contrasts with compositions written after the Classical era in the Romantic, where the excesses of the Baroque were resurrected and enhanced by ever more expressive treatments of the score.
When Mr. Rilling formed his Gächinger Kantorei in 1954 and later the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart, he applied his then-new ideas particularly to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach that found favor with some of the music community and helped him to set and sell records. His 15-year effort to record all Bach cantatas was completed in 1985. Competition in this specialized field came from several others who felt they had a better idea of how to approach period performance practice, most notably the Viennese Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The music and style that is Bach has withstood performances by a wide range of admirers, from the Swingle Singers to Wendy Carlos to Leopold Stokowsky. But Mozart’s music is more vulnerable, like a fine-crafted lace. A little tinkering around the edges can damage the product.
Over time, Mr. Rilling has accreted quite a following. This fact establishes a marker for stylistic performance that he has found difficult to change. The fact that Mozart’s music lies well within the Classical realm, but is surrounded by emotionally-laden and crushingly dominant styles in the Baroque and Romantic, means that a conductor must choose adherence to one of the three. On this occasion, and one might infer, on all occasions, he chooses to dwell in all three period styles at various times. Now he conducts a straight-forward Classical movement, and then we are dipped into a variable tempo style of Romantic origin, and yet again one perceives elements of the Baroque, especially in the Requiem, which is, in fact, form and style more Baroque than Classical, and certainly not Romantic.
Mr. Rilling’s choices in these matters tended toward a cafeteria line: a little of this, a little of that, and then shake until well mixed. The result is quirky, and full of unexpected change. For some, such a mixture of style is discomforting and annoying.
In the symphony, phrase endings were diminuendoed sometimes, and sometimes not. Cadences were almost always preceded by “brakes applied as the train pulls into the station.” But not in every case, as in the third movement (Andante con moto). Worse, the “Ländler” of the Minuetto was taken at full bladder tempo, when that folk dance is in fact a slower than waltz speed. Nevertheless, the Chamber Orchestra soldiered along, doing its best to fathom the Taktstockwanderungen.
Given the long-standing feelings of UCLA to its private school competitor, USC, especially in the realm of sports, it was heart-warming to note the warm applause from the full-house Royce Hall crowd as the USC Chamber Singers made their entrance for the Requiem. As University-age singers go, this is an excellent choir who always sing on pitch, are attentive to whomever is conducting, and sing with a full measure of commitment. Dr. Scheibe prepared them well for this event.
The solo quartet sang as individuals; only in the Offertorium (Domine Jesu) could some semblance of collaboration be noted. Especially annoying was tenor Nicholas Phan, who refused to blend with the other quartet members, even to the point of making his own entrances and phrase completions, and that often out of tune. Ms. Tappan began the work with a creamy, legato tone, but seemed to lose strength as the evening wore on, an effect suffered by her colleague, Mr. Dean, who nevertheless summoned sufficient energy for his Tuba mirum solo. The fatigue factor might stem from the combined ensemble’s performance the previous night at Glendale's Alex Theatre in acoustics that would drain most soloists. Ms. Hoffman’s voice was beautiful, but hampered by low tessitura; her best singing were notes above A=440.
One has to admire the energy that an 82-year old can muster, and music-making tends to resurrect the requisite amount. The aforementioned Mr. Harnoncourt is still conducting at age 83, but has what appears to be blessed with a stronger constitution.
Mr. Levin, the arranger, felt it necessary to hang an “Amen” onto the Lacrimosa, the near two-octave ladder that marked Mozart’s actual moment of death. Mr. Levin’s addition, no matter how “authentic” does not sound at all like Mozart, as it is overly busy and completely misses out on the composer’s transparency. Some may deem this a worthy attempt to fill a void, but where Süßmayr carried on in something much closer to the style of authentic Mozart, Mr. Levin thrashes out with an hysteric fugue that obliterates all of the heart-wrenching pathos that goes before. It is clearly not Mozart. Some might prefer nothing to this “something.”
Perhaps the most pleasing moments were the Voca me of the Confutatis movement and the Dona eis requiem sempiternam section of the Agnus Dei, another addendum by Mr. Levin that adhered well to Mozartean grace, and provided the choir with an opportunity to sound their best of the evening.