Boston Cecilia makes a worthy case for Levin version of Mozart Requiem

May 12, 2024 at 12:11 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Michael Barrett led Boston Cecilia in Mozart’s Requiem Saturday night in Brookline.

Genius, Edison told us, is mostly the result of hard work. Too much of it, though, can lead to deleterious ends: as Jan Swafford’s recent biography convincingly argues, overwork played an outsized role in consigning Wolfgang Amadé Mozart to an early grave.

That he succumbed while setting the liturgy of the Latin mass for the dead only added to the man’s legend. For better or worse, the fact spawned a number of fanciful conspiracy theories; some of them made their way into plays by Alexander Pushkin and Peter Shaffer.

More significantly, Mozart’s premature demise created additional work for, first, his disciples and, later, scholars who have sought to craft a functional performing version of the Requiem in D minor that was left in skeletal form next to the composer’s deathbed. Robert Levin’s 1993 completion of the score, made its way to Brookline’s All Saints Parish on Saturday night, in a joint concert from Boston Cecilia and the Lowell Chamber Orchestra that was led by Michael Barrett.

Levin’s adaptation differs from the most familiar alternative by Mozart’s student, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, in various ways, some of them subtle, some significant. Most notable are revoicings in certain movements and a few extensions of existing materials, along with a more creative handling of the orchestra. There’s also a jarring “Amen” fugue tacked on to the end of the “Lacrimosa.”

Unless one is closely familiar with Süssmayr’s edition, though, most of those details (except the last) probably go unnoticed. Regardless, on Saturday the piece that emerged sounded fundamentally Mozartian.

Singing with gusto and good diction, the Cecilia navigated the Requiem’s counterpoint with textural clarity and an impressive degree of warmth. True, there were spots that dragged: the start of the “Kyrie” was weighed down and the “Osanna” choruses lumbered.

Additionally, some episodes felt mono-dynamic and expressively constrained. In the “Confutatis,” for instance, the contrasts between “confutatis maledictis” and “voca me cum benedictis” needed stronger definition and the “Quam olim Abrahae” fugue in the “Domine Jesu Christe” lacked a measure of lusty abandon.

Yet while the night’s reading might have benefited from a bolder play of articulations, volume, and musical characterizations, the Cecilia under Barrett had all the notes in hand. What’s more, the “Dies irae” and “Rex tremendae” thundered. The “Lacrimosa” flowed touchingly and the “Hostias” unfolded with natural simplicity. After a tonally radiant “Sanctus,” the “Lux aeterna” and “Cum sanctis tuis” strode with brio.

Among the soloists, soprano Aurora Martin and alto Christina English established a quick rapport with one another and the larger group. Their duets in the “Benedictus” were lucid and the singers’ respective individual moments in the “Tuba mirum” and “Recordare” emerged fervently.

The men—tenor Kartik Ayysola and bass Daniel Fridley—met with mixed success, sometimes sounding like they were pushing to fill the space. Yet as the performance proceeded, their contributions grew in strength and nobility.

That wasn’t entirely the case, however, with the orchestra. While the Lowell ensemble’s woodwinds and brasses brought a welcome duskiness to the proceedings, the string playing often sounded raw and insecure.

Perhaps this owed to the group’s small numbers more than anything else (by my count, there were just five violins). Either way, the orchestra’s most impressive contributions came from its three trombone players, who navigated their vigorous doublings of the chorus’s inner voices with aplomb.

The Lowell Chamber Orchestra plays music by Copland, Barber, and Tchaikovsky 7:30 p.m. June 15 at Richard and Nancy Donahue Academic Arts Center.

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