Mozart’s Requiem is one of the great conundrums of music history. When the Salzburg wunderkind died in 1791, he left the score incomplete with some sections partially sketched out. Three movements were totally nonexistent. The composer’s widow Constanze recruited Franz Xavier Süssmayr, a friend and associate of Mozart, to complete the work. Süssmayr was, at best, a second-rate composer and the three sections he wrote are clearly inferior to the rest of the work which is prime Mozart.
Two seasons ago Seraphic Fire commissioned American composer Gregory Spears to write a new completion of the score. It was premiered by the Miami-based chamber choir in November, 2013. Artistic director Patrick Quigley encored that new edition Friday night at All Saints Episcopal Church in Ft. Lauderdale, initiating a series of performances that will bring Spears’ version to New York, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia.
Unlike Süssmayr and others who have attempted to finish the work, Spears makes no attempt to write in the idiom of Mozart’s time. Spears’ Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei utilize a very contemporary, 21st-century musical language.
The Sanctus opens in neo-Baroque manner, the harmonies gradually becoming more adventurous and modern. A solemn Benedictus sets a beguiling melody for soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists against brass accompaniment. (A refracted orchestral quotation from Süssmayr’s version serves as a reverential nod to the past.) Spears’ Agnus Dei is dark and dissonant, the aura of tragedy strongly present. A hymnlike anthem rises from the choir near the movement’s conclusion.
This forward-looking completion strikes out in a bold new directions and is largely successful. Spears’ brand of spiky lyricism works well with the sacred text and his choral writing is masterful. He is clearly a gifted and inventive composer.
Unfortunately the performance was less than flawless. While The Sebastians, Seraphic Fire’s period-instrument ensemble of choice, sounded much better than in the December performances of Messiah,there were still recurrent intonation problems. Right at the onset of the Introit, the winds were unsteady. The strings occasionally strayed from pitch and sounded scrappy in the Lacrimosa. Brass were consistently strong but, at times, too loud, overwhelming the choir in the Dies irae. Jolle Greenleaf’s light soprano was not always audible over the instrumental ensemble during the opening section.
Quigley brought out much of the score’s drama and gravitas. Despite unconventionally fast tempos and hard accents, the Rex tremendae, was sung and played with conviction. The hard-driven Confutatis was less successful, the music wanting greater space and breadth. Utilizing more voices than usual, Quigley drew superb corporate sonority from his choir. The female voices were outstanding, particularly in a silvery toned Hostias. By the final Communion, a return to Mozart’s opening, Quigley seemed to have a firmer grip on the blended textures.
The vocal soloists were consistently strong. In Spears’ Benedictus, Amanda Crider’s warm and voluminous mezzo and Jolle’s exquisite high tones were standouts. Steven Soph’s seasoned lyric tenor and Steven Eddy’s dark baritonal timbre proved impressive. James K. Bass’ deep low range and fine legato lines emblazoned the Tuba mirum, the accompanying trombone solo well articulated. Margot Rood’s airy soprano and Margaret Lias’ rich, sizable mezzo made major contributions.
On the program’s first half, the choir demonstrated remarkable control of pitch and volume in Knut Nystedt’s Immortal Bach, a deconstruction of Bach’s Komm süsser Tod. The Baroque formality of Heinrich Schütz’s Selig, Sind die Toten and free flowing romantic spirit of Mendelssohn’s Richte mich, Gott offered differing concepts of the motet.
The aural soundscape and harmonic beauty of Ingram Marshall’s Hymnodic Delays, in Suzanne Hatcher’s choral version of the electronic original score, was both beautiful and thrilling. Molly Quinn’s radiant soprano easily rode over the chorus in I Am, Dominick DiOrio’s sunny play of vocal timbres.
Seraphic Fire repeats the program 8 p.m. Saturday at Miami Shores Presbyterian Church and 4 p.m. Sunday at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay. seraphicfire.org 305-285-9060
The program will also be presented 7:30 p.m. February 16 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, K Steet in Washington, D.C.; 7:30 p.m. February 17 at Trinity Wall Steet in New York; and 7:30 p.m. February 18 at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. These performances are free but tickets must be reserved