Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus (Mackerras) – ‘Mozart: Requiem Mass in D minor, K. 626 (edited by Robert Levin)’ An SACD review by Mark Jordan

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ is surely the greatest “what if” in the history of classical music. If Mozart hadn’t died before completing it, we could have had one of the greatest masterpieces of all time. Even in the cobbled-together version completed by Mozart’s student Franz Xaver Sьssmayr, it makes a towering impression. But even Sьssmayr himself later commented that he felt his completion of the work was in no way up to the standards of “that great man”. Thus many revised editions have appeared over the years, attempting to fix the problems. These have run the range from cosmetic corrections of wrong notes and awkward part-writing, to radical attempts to expunge everything in the score that was not demonstrably Mozart’s own.

This new Linn Records SACD presents a performance of the edition completed a few years ago by the noted fortepianist Robert Levin. It leans toward the heavily revisionist end of the spectrum, without going to drastic extremes. Levin theorizes that the “Sanctus” and “Agnus Dei” sections, though obviously composed by Sьssmayr, were almost certainly based on thematic material sketched by Mozart, because they are closely related motivically to the other themes in the work, which is a subtlety unseen in any of Sьssmayr’s own compositions. Levin, however, has decided that Sьssmayr’s gaffes are intolerable enough to justify rewriting many parts of these and other movements. I, for one, agree with him. Sьssmayr is to be thanked and honored for the service he did to posterity in preserving what he could of Mozart’s intentions. But, as noted above, he himself knew he was falling painfully short of what Mozart would have done, and I can only think that he would be grateful that scholars with an overview of Mozart’s style can now help the piece along a little further. Suffice it to say that if you are perfectly happy with the meandering trombone solo in “Tuba Mirum”, if you’re not bothered by the missing fugue at the end of the “Lacrimosa”, and if you don’t mind the short, awkward “Hosannas”, then this edition of the work is not for you. If, like me, you have always felt the work gradually falls apart once we’re in the Sьssmayr half of it, you will want to explore this new recording by Sir Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus.

Before going any further, let us peruse a list of the versions of Mozart’s Requiem referred to in this review:

  • Sьssmayr (1792) This is the original version of the work, which features what Mozart had finished, along with orchestrations by Mozart’s students Josef Eybler and Franz Josef Freystдdtler. The latter parts of the work are composed and orchestrated by Sьssmayr, apparently based on sketches or verbally communicated themes and ideas by Mozart.
  • Flothuis (1941) This version was prepared by Concertgebouw assistant artistic director Marius Flothuis for conductor Eduard van Beinum. It keeps most of Sьssmayr’s completion, but rewrites the trombone parts and corrects the many obvious mistakes throughout the score.
  • Beyer (1981) The version by Franz Beyer corrects obvious mistakes, rewrites some of the trombone parts and slightly extends the “Hosanna” sections, which are so short in Sьssmayr, they sound abrupt and largely unconvincing.
  • Maunder (1986) Richard Maunder’s version attempts to remove all traces of Sьssmayr’s involvement from the score, restoring the “Amen” sketches of which Sьssmayr was evidently unaware. It completely omits the “Sanctus” and “Benedictus” movements.
  • Levin (1995) Levin’s edition keeps the Sьssmayr composition, but extensively rewrites it to smooth out awkward and ineffective moments, and to prune cluttered orchestration. There is also extensive correcting of mistakes and rewriting of the trombone parts. Levin also elaborates on the more recently discovered sketches for an “Amen” fugue to follow the “Lacrimosa”.

All these versions have their advocates. Indeed, there has been such a flurry of revisionist activity in recent years, there has a been a backlash of pro-Sьssmayr musicians and musicologists, who point out that whatever Sьssmayr’s flaws, he was still closer to Mozart than any modern musicologist could be. But that sort of status quo argument doesn’t change the fact that Sьssmayr’s uncorrected score is full of obvious mistakes that even Sьssmayr himself would have corrected later on if he’d had an opportunity to revise his work when he was older and more experienced. Ultimately, only time will tell if any of these alternate editions gathers enough supporters to form a consensus. I believe this Mackerras recording is a powerful vote for Levin’s bold stance.

Sir Charles Mackerras is arguably most famous for his association with Czech music, but he has also proven a formidable Mozartian, having recorded the complete symphonies and many of the serenades for Telarc. This attractive Linn Records release makes a valuable addition to Mackerras’ Mozart discography, uniting nimble, clarified textures with the warmth of modern instruments in a memorable performance. Mackerras leads the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus, an ensemble large enough to provide force and grandeur, but small enough to keep textures clear and inviting. Mackerras lucidly balances the intertwining vocal and instrumental lines so that more of the piece’s inner workings are audible here than in any of the old-fashioned big orchestra performances. Interestingly, Mackerras uses rhythmical “double-dotting” in many places. Whether this is indicated by Levin’s score or is merely a historically informed choice by the conductor is not clear. In effect, it keeps rhythms sprung and lithe, so that the archaisms of the work do not end up ossifying it into some lifeless marble edifice, which happens all too often in performances of this work. Mackerras treads a fine line, making the “Kyrie” powerful without losing any sharpness of focus. He achieves the sharpness with alert, attentive playing and singing, not by fussing over it or pulling his punches the way all too many period instrument performances do. Mackerras has the chorus surge in their phrasing of the “dies irae, dies illa” interjections in the “Dies Irae” movement, which emphasizes their uneasy harmonies. Such small but telling touches can be found throughout this performance. Another example is the attentive use of Germanic pronunciations of the Latin text instead of the generic church pronunciation so often used. Thus “requiem” becomes the very plangent “ray-kvee-aim” here.

Bass soloist Peter Rose brings a smooth, mellow, almost baritonal sound to the “Tuba Mirum”. Levin’s edition mercifully cuts the trombone solo off with the entrance of the dramatic tenor solo sparing us Sьssmayr’s meandering extension past Mozart’s elegant opening. Tenor Timothy Robinson sings it dramatically, albeit with a sense of pressure on his voice. A more controversial textual change is the omission of the trombone chord after the first two notes of the “Rex Tremendae”. A consultation with the Dover reprint of the Breitkopf & Hдrtel publication of Sьssmayr’s score confirms that this chord is not original with Mozart, but was added in later. I’m not sure I mind its presence, but its absence doesn’t greatly hurt, either. The soloists come to the fore in the “Recordare”, which Mackerras keeps flowing along. Susan Gritton’s darkly expressive soprano contrasts with mezzo soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ velvety tone. All soloists sing expressively, sacrificing corporate blend to individual nuance here, although they blend more smoothly later in the “Benedictus”. The overall weight of the soloists’ voices could be described as lightly operatic, suiting Mackerras’ blend of historically informed styles with modern resources. The “Confutatis” is excellent, not merely vigorous, but pointed and shaped to build up to the dramatic moment when all the instruments fall away and the chorus plaintively calls “voca me”.

The following “Lacrimosa” is similarly affecting, but here is where the controversy really gets going. Levin recomposes the end of the movement, for it is evident that Mozart sketched a fugue on the words “Amen”, which Sьssmayr merely set as two chords, resolving the movement into the major rather too easily. Levin’s setting of the fugue is only a minute and a half, but it gives a suitable formal weight to the close of the “Sequence” section. After the urgency Mackerras brings to the “Offertory” (helped by Levin’s thinning of Sьssmayr’s orchestral doublings), forward momentum does not flounder as usual in the “Sanctus”, for Levin has considerably re-orchestrated and, in places, rewritten these movements. The “Sanctus” movement is greatly enhanced by Levin’s replacement of Sьssmayr’s gauche tremolos with ornate, quasi-baroque figuration. He extends the awkwardly brief “Hosanna” fugues at the end of the “Sanctus” and “Benedictus” movements, rewriting the end of the latter to bring back the fugue in its home key of D major, instead of the B-flat major tonality of the movement. This recasting into original pitch brings the repetition in line with Mozart’s normal observations of sacred music etiquette. The “Agnus Dei”, featuring here some gorgeous basset horn harmonies from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra clarinet players, also contains some reworked passages. Levin’s rewrites throughout the preceding sections is sure to be controversial, but I believe his work is soundly musical, and structurally beneficial to the work, as well as being far more graceful than Sьssmayr’s.

With the closing “Lux Aeterna” and “Cum Sanctis Tuis” Sьssmayr adapted music from the beginning of the ‘Requiem’, thus we are back in solidly Mozartian territory for the remainder of the piece. One odd thing, it almost sounds as if a major third is added to the final chord of the work, which would certainly be a new twist, but listening carefully to the chord and its ringing out into the hall at the end, as well as comparing it to the same chord at the end of the “Kyrie”, makes it evident that the major third is not actually there. My guess would be that something on stage is creating this ghost pitch as an overtone, because it is vibrating in sympathy with the main pitches that are being sounded. The most likely culprit would be overtones from the timpani, but it is impossible to say for sure. Certainly an interesting quirk, unlikely to have been caught back in the days of analog recordings. It may not even register with many listeners.

Those who aren’t ready to jettison Sьssmayr have many options. Among grand, large orchestra recordings, the one by Colin Davis and the BBC Symphony and Chorus from the late 1960’s is impressive. Among modern versions, there is an effectively nimble yet dramatic recording by Franz Welser-Mцst and the London Philharmonic on EMI, now available at super-budget price. Welser-Mцst wisely makes some minor editorial revisions, for instance, cutting off the overextended trombone solo. One old-style recording that has been issued on SACD, which I do not recommend, is the Herbert von Karajan recording. Perhaps I have some sort of blind spot for Karajan’s Mozart. To my mind, he seems to gum up Mozart’s textures with his velvet-plush orchestral sound and dovetailed phrasing. The only performances that do less justice to the work are the extremely slow ones by Leonard Bernstein and Hermann Scherchen (the Scherchen runs over 63 minutes!). The best recording to come out of the pro-Sьssmayr backlash against the revisionists is William Christie’s Erato account from 1994, with Les Arts Florissants. Although he occasionally fusses over phrasing and textures, Christie lets the piece work its magic, Sьssmayrisms intact. Best of all is his daring slowing of tempo in the “Confutatis” for the visionary “voca me” passages, an approach that cannot be forgotten once it is heard. Another notable period-instrument Sьssmayr is the recording by John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists.

The Flothuis edition is a relatively conservative editorial gloss on Sьssmayr’s score, not making many more changes than an insightful conductor would, but it does at least guarantee that those changes are incorporated. There is a gorgeously recorded SACD from Channel Classics with Jos van Veldhoven leading the Netherlands Bach Society Orchestra and Chorus. Van Veldhoven uses a very small ensemble, which gives the work an attractively intimate feel, although such forces, especially when combined with van Veldhoven’s fussy phrasing, lack the overall strength to tangle with the “Kyrie”/”Cum Sanctis” fugue, among other passages. For an intimate take on the piece, though, and for its recording, it can certainly be given a qualified recommendation.

For those still bothered by Sьssmayr’s gaffes, but who are a little afraid of Levin’s extensive recomposition and Maunder’s amputations, there is always the Beyer edition, which extends the “Hosanna” fugues and smoothes over some other awkward places. Unfortunately, the only recording of it I know is the overwrought Bernstein performance with the Bavarian Radio Symphony in 1988, caught live by Deutsche Grammophon. Bernstein was actually using reduced forces, but he pulls a huge, Mahlerian sound out of them, and when you factor in his distended tempos and lingering phrasing, it becomes almost a parody. Bernstein saves his biggest shocker for the end, holding out the final chord in an endless diminuendo. Good theatre, perhaps. Not good Mozart, though.

For those who find even Levin too tolerant of Sьssmayr, there is always the Maunder edition, recorded by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music some years ago for L’Oiseau-Lyre. Maunder includes a version of the “Amen” fugue, and corrects the obvious mistakes. But he also completely cuts the “Sanctus” and “Benedictus” movements, supposing that they are too much Sьssmayr and not enough Mozart to be saved. Myself, I have endorsed the Maunder at times in the past, having had my attention wander so many times during the omitted movements, but I feel that Levin has done impressive work in bringing these movements into the fold of the rest of the piece and making them work better as part of the overall dramatic flow.

As Mackerras’ performance of the ‘Requiem’ is swifter than the traditional approach (46:45 by my count), the ‘Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546’ is included to fill up the disc. It fits effectively with the ‘Requiem’, so full as it is of quasi-archaic chords and learned counterpoint, for it, too, is heavily influenced by the rigorously contrapuntal styles of Bach and Handel. Indeed, the work is probably the sternest, least yielding piece in the Mozart canon. Yet still his fingerprints are all over it, and it is a welcome filler, played here by the full string sections of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Mozart also left it to be optionally played by solo strings as a quintet for chamber music performances).

Listening to the CD layer of this hybrid disc, one hears a warm yet clear recording of considerable accomplishment. The perspective is moderately close, which lets us hear all of Mackerras’ carefully sorted textures. But moving into the two-channel stereo program of the high-resolution SACD layer, the sounds start rising up and taking more definite shape in the mind’s eye. The DSD recording captures raspy string attacks and the burr on the edge of brass notes that make the sound very vivid. Moving into the multichannel high-resolution program, the sounds became fully three-dimensional, and locating the instruments on the sound stage becomes much easier. The multichannel envelope almost seems to create an electricity here, a frisson where you are no longer just listening to the performance, you’re suddenly part of the event. The very center of the soundstage could have been a little more clearly defined, for this is a four-channel surround recording, not five, lacking a front center channel. This vagueness prevents the final pinpointing of exactly where the sound of the bassoons is emanating, versus the basset horns, but still the overall sound is brightly airy, yet warm. Linn Records is especially to be commended for the tasteful miking of the soloists. Instead of spotlighting them to the point where they drown out the orchestra, they are subtly highlighted – just enough to keep them focused through the enveloping orchestral and choral contributions. Linn’s big corporate competitors could learn a few things from a recording like this. The overall sound picture of the orchestra and chorus on stage of Caird Hall in Dundee, Scotland, is vivid and fresh, with more width than depth. There is a sense of air over the stage that keeps the sound from ever seeming cramped, although the lack of delayed bounceback from the rear channels suggests that it is not a full-sized hall. In sum, what we get is an ideal compromise between power and intimacy, a trait displayed by the performance itself. I would recommend this disc highly strictly on the performance and sound alone. The fact that it features an important new edition of one of the most important pieces in the repertory makes this a must-have for every serious listener – one of the most important discs of the year, and a priceless addition to the surround sound catalogue.