Mostly Mozart Opening

Symphony No.40 in G minor, K550
Requiem, K626 [Ed. Franz Beyer]

Lisa Milne (soprano)
Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)
John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Andrew Foster-Williams (bass)


Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Louis Langrée

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 9 July, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This was the opening event of this year’s “Mostly Mozart” festival, which graces the Barbican at weekends until 31 July. There are some very attractive concerts coming up. This ‘wholly Mozart’ concert was preceded by a pre-concert talk (“Music and the cultural calendar”), foyer music from the Classical Buskers, and concluded with post-concert fireworks at the Lakeside Terrace. The air of celebration sat rather oddly with the music being performed – the G minor Symphony and the Requiem are two of Mozart’s darkest works. Maybe George Bernard Shaw (an Irishman) got it right when he commented that the English have a creepy love of Requiems, something borne out by the full house.

With the ever-reliable Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the generally excellent Polyphony, and a notable quartet of soloists, there was much to admire. However, there is something disconcerting about performances of religious music in a wholly secular context when we, the audience, no longer collectively share in the work’s original spiritual subtext. This struck most vividly whilst listening to the ‘Recordare’. “I groan as one guilty, and my face blushes with guilt; spare the supplicant, O God.” None of this cheerful quartet of singers seemed to have the slightest fear: “… show mercy, lest I burn in everlasting fire.” Divine forgiveness seemed already in the bag.

The performance’s outstanding feature was the well-focussed choral singing of the 26 voices of Polyphony, at its most affecting in the closing pages of the ‘Confutatis’ and throughout the ‘Lacrimosa’, the last point in the Requiem for which Mozart completed the orchestration. This performance used Franz Beyer’s 1971 edition that makes changes to the once standard ‘completion’ of Süssmayr. Of the soloists, Karen Cargill and John Mark Ainsley were particularly satisfying, but the normally outgoing Lisa Milne seemed unduly reticent.

The conducting of Louis Langrée was in many ways the least satisfactory aspect. Frequently speeds were fast, which gave the soloists precious little room to expand, although this would not have mattered too much had Langrée justified his speeds by exerting greater control; too often this was simply fast and bland as well as lacking light and shade.

The G minor Symphony was at its best in the middle movements, the Andante swift and flowing, the Minuet light on its feet and one- in-a-bar. However, given that the symphony is Mozart’s most overtly operatic (is it coincidence that the opening palpitates with agitation as it recalls Cherubino’s aria “Non so piu”?) and the finale pushes drama to the extreme, both the outer movements were curiously undramatic and scarcely tapped into the underlying vehemence; a well-tended rococo garden rather than a life-and-death experience. This was especially puzzling when one considers Langrée’s reputation as an opera conductor and doubly disappointing given the excellent quality of the playing, not least, in the Requiem, Tristan Fry’s crisp timpani-playing.

Also, the admission of large numbers of latecomers, unapologetically and noisily seating themselves well into the slow movement, did little for one’s concentration. The Barbican would do well to make it policy that latecomers will not be admitted between movements.

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