Sunday, January 18, 2004

Ensemble director unravels Mozart's 'Requiem' mystery

Q & A

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Earl Rivers rehearses the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
Mozart's Requiem is shrouded in mystery. One of the biggest questions is: How much of this soulful Mass for the Dead was actually composed by Mozart, who was on his deathbed?

Here's the problem: Of its 15 sections, we have just one finished movement - the Requiem aeternam.

Then there are the circumstances surrounding the commission in 1791, the last year of Mozart's life. The request for a requiem arrived in a letter without signature carried by an unknown messenger.

The 1984 movie Amadeus depicted Mozart's terror while he feverishly wrote, as if he was penning his own requiem. In truth, a wealthy noble, Count Franz von Walsegg, commissioned it in memory of his 21-year-old wife, who had just died.

When Mozart died before he could finish his Requiem, Franz Xaver Sussmayr completed it. But many others have tried their hand.

Earl Rivers, director of the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati, discusses Harvard professor Robert Levin's edition, which he will conduct with the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra today and Monday.

Many listeners have heard Mozart's Requiem with large forces. How will this be different?

What: Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, Earl Rivers, conductor
When: 2 p.m. today, St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, downtown; 7:30 p.m. Monday, Greaves Concert Hall, Northern Kentucky University.
Tickets: $25; $10 students. 556-4183; or
The program: Mozart's Requiem, Robert Levin edition (regional premiere); Haydn's Harmoniemesse (Wind Band Mass)
Preconcert lecture: Mary Sue Morrow, CCM professor of musicology, will speak one-half hour prior to concert time.
Looking ahead: Cincinnati May Festival will present the Robert Levin edition of Mozart's Requiem May 28 in Music Hall, with James Conlon conducting.
It will be more transparent, using smaller forces, which were very much in character in Mozart's time. I think it will bring certain clarity to the work. It's such a wonderful pairing of the resources of a small orchestra and a small chorus.

The music is so moving. Why is the Requiem so loved - even though Mozart never completed it?

I'm convinced that Mozart did conceive the whole piece. There are too many subtleties in the non-Mozartian movements. The shades of melodic lines - it's obvious they are based on previous musical material. It does give the work a unity, so I always feel when I get to the end of the work, I've had the spirit of Mozart all the way through.

Exactly how much did Mozart write?

The first movement-and-a-half, Mozart did everything. The next eight movements, he did the bass line, the choral parts and the basic melodies of the orchestra. The orchestration was filled in by at least three pupils.

How is Levin's version different from others?

Among the manuscripts that were left, that Sussmayr did not make use of - was a fugue. It was only a fragment of six notes, which Mozart had just begun to develop. It has an "Amen" text. Levin set this "Amen" fugue, and attached it to the Lacrimosa.

The real beauty, for me, is the balancing of the architecture. It brings a greater sense of finality to the whole sequence, which begins with the Dies Irae and ends with the Lacrimosa.

The second thing he did was to (extend) the little sections called "Hosanna."

Did anything surprise you?

The biggest surprise is the "Amen" fugue. It absolutely knocks you over. It was startling; it's challenging music to perform. The tessitura is high, and it moves quickly.

Why is it so well regarded?

I think it's because (Levin) has retained so much respect for the original. The goal was to revise not as much, but as little as possible... So, unlike some other revisions and completions, he approaches this with a great deal of respect. It really sounds Mozartian.

For this concert, why did you pair Haydn's Harmoniemesse (Wind Band Mass) with Mozart's Requiem?

Harmoniemesse is also Haydn's last work ... Nobody knows the piece. It came after (oratorios) The Creation and The Seasons, and it uses the biggest wind section that he used for any of these, as well as timpani. It's fabulous. It's got all the things you expect from Haydn - and a few surprises.


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