Toronto Symphony 2019-2020 # 3: Sublime Late Mozart

Ken Stephen, Large Stage Live!

t’s now become a long-standing tradition for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to feature the music of Mozart in a series of concerts in late January of each year, around the time of the composer’s birthday (January 26).  This week’s concert series at Roy Thomson Hall featured no less than four performances of one of Mozart’s most beloved works, the Requiem K.626, here played in harness with the delightful Symphony # 39 in E-Flat Major, K.543.

This is going to be a two-part post.  Before I get to reviewing the actual performance, here are some thoughts on the reasons why Franz Xaver Süssmayr’s completion of the largely incomplete Requiem refuses to roll over and die, even with so many musicologists of the world screaming for it to disappear.

Okay, I admit that I am being a bit melodramatic here.  But only a bit.  Consider this quote from the house programme notes by Margot Rejskind: “Süssmayr’s work has been harshly criticized, not without good reason: the Requiem is full of errors in harmony, and his musical ideas were no match for Mozart’s.”

My immediate reaction is, “Says who?”

My own personal feeling is that Süssmayr’s completion of the work continues to hold the stage against all comers precisely because Süssmayr successfully matched, not the quality of Mozart’s ideas, but the unique sound world which Mozart was creating as he worked on this piece.  Süssmayr may not have been the best or the most favoured of Mozart’s students, but he was there, on the spot, when Mozart was working on the score — and that gives him an unbeatable advantage in comparison to all the twentieth-century musicologists who have tried to go him one better.

Interim Artistic Director Sir Andrew Davis led the orchestra and singers in a performance of the Süssmayr score as tightly integrated and dramatically varied as one might ever want to hear.  Gone was the stodgy manner of the Mozart recordings I heard in my youth, wallowing about in a vast, deep sea of Wagner-sized string tone.  The orchestra was pared down to a body of medium size, allowing the strings to balance the winds and brasses, without either one overwhelming the other, or being overwhelmed by the 120-some voices of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

Tempi were lively one minute, slow the next, as the score demands.  But never, for even a second, was there the feeling that the music was losing momentum and was about to lie down and die.

As I vividly recall from my one year singing in the Mendelssohn Choir, Sir Andrew is a complete master of the art of conducting choral-orchestral performances.  From my seat to one side, I could see that he still makes use of his near-incredible balancing act, in which he conducts the choir with his face while leading the orchestra with his hands (and without a baton).  Far too many conductors have to leave one body of performers to their devices while helping another along.

Right from the opening bars of the Introit, Davis struck the perfect balance between the creamy tone and smooth phrasing of the basset horn lines on the one hand, and the tension engendered by the walking accompaniment pattern in the strings on the other.  The entire performance was marked and distinguished, in fact, by a just-right amount of tension between lyrical beauty and dramatic significance in every movement.

Wonderful as the soloists were, the honours of the evening, as far as the Requiem were concerned, rested with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.  Coincidentally (or not?) the first of the four concerts this week fell on January 15, the exact 125th anniversary of the founding concert of the choir in 1894 under Dr. Augustus Vogt.

Throughout the work, the choristers excelled in the agility needed for the faster passages (the Offertorio and the Kyrie fugue the most stunning examples) while finding the necessary power for the more solemn and sombre sections.  Impressive indeed were the many passages placed low in the voice registers, and here in particular the singers maintained firm tone and immaculate blend in places where some choirs get into difficulties.

Above all else, I was swept away by the sheer passion and involvement of the singing in the climactic Lacrimosa  the penultimate phrases on Dona eis requiem were laden with universal sorrow and searing power in equal measures.

Read the full review here.