Requiem brings out best in performers
By Marilyn Farwell
For The Register-Guard
Published: Tuesday, July 18, 2006
The last concert of any major music festival is often the culminating event of the daily, intense collaboration among brilliant musicians. Sometimes, however, it can be merely the last gasp of exhausted participants.
On Sunday afternoon, as the Oregon Bach Festival came to a close, it was clear that the former prevailed. Helmuth Rilling and his forces reached the pinnacle of the season with a near-perfect presentation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Requiem. The standing ovation, which in the Bach Festival is almost a matter of course, was this time well-deserved.
Mozart's Requiem Mass in D Minor is an intensely dramatic work. It owes this tension to the legends surrounding its composition as well as to the text of the Roman Catholic Mass for the dead.
If we are to believe the popular film "Amadeus," Mozart was visited by a masked stranger who asked for a Requiem Mass. The stranger in the movie is actually Mozart's jealous rival, Antonio Salieri, who plots Mozart's death and requests the composition that will serve as his Requiem.
None of this is true. A stranger did, it seems, request a Requiem, but for a rich nobleman who wanted to pass it off as his own. The real drama, however, lies with the work's proximity to Mozart's own death, leading some to think that Mozart was aware of his impending death as he wrote. Adding to this mystique, Mozart died before he finished the score.
The real reason for the work's impassioned drama, it seems to me, was that Mozart-the-opera-composer took an already dramatic religious story of the struggle to be saved from the fiery pits of hell and made of it a mini-opera. The emotions run the gamut from fear, trembling, and awe in the face of damnation to humble hope for salvation.
The musical means of portraying these emotions are extreme. From thunderous sounds at the day of judgment in the "Dies Irae" to the delicate choral sections pleading for mercy in the exquisite "Lacrymosa," Mozart's music is filled with stark contrasts. Rilling made the most of these musical contrasts with a chorus and orchestra that responded to his every movement.
The precision and expressive range of the chorus deserves high praise. Prepared by Chorus Master Kathy Romey, the mysterious woman who appears at the end of most choral concerts to take a bow, the chorus performed flawlessly. At this final event, all the training came to bear on the demanding fugues and on the equally difficult legato lines. Rilling is a master of dramatic readings of these texts, and the chorus responded with melting pianissimos in prayers such as "voca me" and "salve me" and with full-throated renditions of the fear of damnation.
The orchestra matched the choral perfection with beautiful playing. Beginning with the woodwinds' subtle crescendo in the introductory notes and with the purity of the string sound, the orchestra excelled.
The soloists were well matched vocally.
Donna Brown is a soprano whose burnished voice soars above the others in clear beauty. Roxana Constantinescu has a warm, rich alto voice, although her tendency to flatten her entry notes is distracting. The elegant bass, Markus Eiche, sang with vigor, and an impressive lyric tenor, Lothar Odinius, sang well. When singing together, as it did in the "Recordare," the quartet wove a beautiful musical tapestry.
Robert Levin completed this unfinished Mozart score, as he did Mozart's C Minor Mass. When he spoke of the two projects, he dismissed the completion of the Requiem as mere child's play when compared with the daunting task of finishing the C Minor Mass. For the most part, he retained Franz Sussmayr's familiar themes while cleaning up the orchestration and adding the "Amen" to the "Lacrymosa."
This superb performance whets the appetite for next year's Oregon Bach Festival. It cannot come too soon.
Marilyn Farwell is a professor emerita of English at the University of Oregon.