Levin's take on 'Requiem' invokes subtlety of Mozart

November 12, 1996|By Pierre Ruhe | Pierre Ruhe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Mozart died before completing his great "Requiem." To collect the full commission, his widow, Constanze, enlisted first Joseph Eybler then Franz Xavier Sussmayr to complete the score.

The most familiar version of Mozart's Requiem is by Sussmayr -- a student of Mozart's -- but his completion was hastily done and is riddled with stylistic and compositional problems, inviting modern day scholars to try their hand at finishing the work.

Mozart specialist Robert Levin's recent edition of the "Requiem" received its Baltimore premiere Saturday at Meyerhoff Hall. The Baltimore Choral Arts Society and Orchestra was led by Tom Hall.

The afternoon began with a half-hour virtuoso lecture given by Levin, seated at the piano and assisted by the orchestra and chorus to illustrate his points. The simple comparison between Mozart's scoring of the "Rex Tremendae" -- incomplete but still conveying tremendous energy -- and Sussmayr's more lumbering additions made a clear point.

Mozart was subtle and clever, his student was neither, and it's better to have Mozart-in-the-rough than the poorly crafted Sussmayr. After all, we know the Parthenon without a roof, unpainted and without friezes, and our admiration for its classical perfection is undiminished.

But the dying master did not leave enough on paper for a free-standing performance, though perhaps he instructed his student how to proceed.

Thus Levin, in his completion of the "Requiem," takes the position of restorer, amending the cracks by erasing Sussmayr's more obvious flaws and by expanding sections where he had deficiencies. To close the "Lacrimosa," for example, Levin scrapped Sussmayr's two note "Amen," substituting an enormous fugue that follows Mozart's style for church music.

There have been other attempts to "fix" the "Requiem." Levin and company illustrated two very different approaches by Richard Maunder and Duncan Druse. Each made for agreeable listening but were stylistically at odds with Mozart's idiom, in Druse's case by treating the "Requiem" as his own composition, adding layers of un-Mozartean texture.

Any version will ultimately stand or fall by its performance, and the Choral Arts Choir should be commended for superb singing. The vocal quartet was at odds with the chorus' lighter inflections, however, with soprano Janice Chandler in full, vibrant voice. Leneida Crawford sang the alto part with elegance and VTC bass David Arnold displayed authority in the "Tuba Mirum."

Gran Wilson, a buoyant spinto tenor, stood apart in the quartet; one imagined a Rodolfo or Alfredo when he sang.

Does it really matter in what version we hear the "Requiem," so long as it continues to stir us? Critic Hans Keller observed that we understand the significance of a masterpiece today far better than the composer's contemporaries did; we've had time to savor every phrase and to know the work in context.

Listeners interested in pursuing Levin's edition can consult the recording by the Boston Baroque Orchestra conducted by Martin Pearlman.

Pub Date: 11/12/96

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