Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Kansas City Symphony: Mozart and Messiaen

Music Director Michael Stern returned to KC along with his wife and new baby (she is adorable and both Shelly and Michael are adoring parents) to conduct his first concert this season with the KC Symphony. He was scheduled to conduct the opening concert in September but Miss Hannon’s late arrival made that impossible.

This past weekend’s concert was billed as the finale to the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. Earlier concerts featured the Symphonies. This one celebrated the late choral masterpieces Ave Verum Corpus K 618 and the final great work the Requiem K 626 in the new Levin edition. Sandwiched in between was L'Ascension, Four Symphonic Meditations by Oliver Messiaen.

Ave Verum is a simple piece; short, sweet and direct and was written as a favor for a small church chorus director who looked after Mozart’s wife while she was resting in the small village of Baden near Vienna. He asked for a Eucharistic hymn for the feast of Corpus Christi. Thus the motet “Hail, true flesh, born of the Virgin Mary” was born. Although simple and not adventurous at all, it is a masterpiece of atmosphere and pure beauty. The performance was great, asking only for a bit more diction from the chorus.

Interestingly, albeit liturgically logical, Stern launched directly in to L’Ascension. This is one of my favorite Messiaen pieces. Full of atmosphere, intriguing harmonies and instrumentation and his requisite bird call themes, L’Ascension is a bit more approachable than say “Turangalila” Symphony or “Eclairs a sur Dela”. It is not often played. After the concert on Friday, I went to a party where I told a friend I had been to the symphony and told him the program. “The KC Symphony played Messiaen??? Damn!”

The Friday performance was very good but not great. The brass, especially the trumpets, had a hard time with the demands of the intonation in the more exposed passages of the brass and wind only first movement Majesty of Christ Beseeching His Glory of the Father. The English Horn solo in the second movement Serene Alleluias of a Soul Yearning for Heaven was atmospheric and lyrical. The woodwinds in general were spectacular, and the string only final mediation Prayer of Christ Ascending to His Father, was a pure and sincere study of serene ecstasy. I am happy to report that the performance on Sunday was much better with vastly improved intonation and a bit tighter 3rd mediation Alleluias on the Trumpets, Alleluias on the Cymbals. With a bit more rehearsal and experience under Stern, the KC Symphony could be a force to be reckoned with in Messiaen.

Few works are as controversial yet so beloved as Mozart’s Requiem in D minor K 626. Its story and Mozart’s last days has been the subject of plays, movies (Amadeus) and even an opera. What is known for sure is that Mozart did not live to complete the work. So as not to lose the substantial sum the “unknown stranger” paid in full for the work, his widow had Mozart’s friend and pupil Franz Sussmyer complete the Requiem. It is assumed that Mozart completed only the Requiem and Kyrie sections of the work, but left sketches for voices and indications for scoring for the Dies irae through the Hostias. Sussmyer and another pupil Joseph Eybler scored filled in parts and even wrote out the last parts the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei.

It has long been the opinion of musicians, musicologists and audiences alike that the quality of the requiem declines as it progresses. Sussmyer was no Mozart thus the scoring became labored, more conventional, and less idiomatic of Mozart. The new (1993) edition by Robert Levin aimed to improve the work by lightening textures in spots, correcting errors in keys and rhythms, adding a fugal Amen to the Lacrimosa and regrouping the movements in to 5 larger sections I Introit II Sequence ( from the Dies Irae and Tuba Mirum through the Lacrimosa) III Offertory IV Sanctus-Benedictus V Agnus Dei-Communion. Frankly, I think it is a tremendous improvement from the turgid and uninspired Sussmyer version, but still we long for the impossible; how Mozart would have completed this incredible piece.

The performance on both Fri and Sunday was inspired. Perfectly paced, it seemed a bit shorter than the old version. Possibly because the work does not get as bogged down as it progresses. The chorus never failed and was totally up to the demands of the fugal passages. The fabulous Tuba Mirum (in my opinion the one of the most inspired musical utterances in all of music) was perfect, the bass soloist intoning the fateful lines: Tuba mirum spargens sonum per sepulchra regionum, coget omnes ante thronum. (The trumpet, sending its wondrous sound across the graves of all lands, shall drive everyone before the throne.) with all the power and majesty required. All the soloists, students of the Curtis Institute of Music, were uniformly good. The soprano tended to have her nose buried in the score, lessening her ability to communicate her lines and to drag a bit. The penultimate movement the Lux Aeterna was a bet slow and tepid. A couple minor quibbles in an overall excellent and well received performance.

We can hope that the Levin edition will inspire those who have avoided the work (I being one of them) to appreciate its glories anew. It did me. A wonderful recording of the Levin edition is available on Telarc CD 80636 with Runnicles and Atlanta.

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