Chicago Chorale singers deliver in a mixed Mozart/Levin Requiem

Mon Mar 26, 2018 at 12:36 pm

By Tim Sawyier

Bruce Tammen conducted the Chicago Chorale in Mozart's Requiem Sunday at St. Benedict Parish.
Bruce Tammen conducted the Chicago Chorale in Mozart’s Requiem Sunday at St. Benedict Catholic Church.

Holy Week is a reliably rich period on the classical calendar. This Palm Sunday the Chicago Chorale made its contribution to the Easter lead-up with a performance of the Mozart Requiem at St. Benedict Catholic Church in the North Center neighborhood. Under the direction of artistic director Bruce Tammen, the Chorale offered a solid rendition, incorporating Robert Levin’s completion of the famously incomplete work.

Mozart was working on the Requiem at the time of his death on December 5, 1791, leaving only about a third of the work finished. The actual circumstances of the work’s commission are less fantastical than depicted in Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus and the ensuing Oscar-winning film.

In the summer of 1791 a Count Franz von Walsegg had commissioned Mozart, through an intermediary, to write the work, hoping to pass it off as his own composition to memorialize his recently deceased wife. Mozart’s wife Constanze was anxious to collect the commission fee after her husband’s death, which led her to engage Mozart’s student and sometimes assistant Franz Xaver Süssmayr (among others) to complete it. Süssmayr’s version made its way into the repertory and has remained the most performed version of the Requiem for the last two centuries.

Noted pianist and Mozart scholar Robert Levin substantially retooled the Süssmayr completion in the 1990’s. His version—heard Sunday—pares down what he sees as some of Süssmayr’s excesses, revises dubious orchestrations and doubling, and adds a few substantial sections to Mozart’s final opus. Another conspicuous difference is that the chorus comes across as much more front-and-center in Levin’s rendition than in others, which served the Chicago Chorale well in Sunday’s performance.

Tammen has built his Chorale into an impressive instrument, so much so it was often easy to forget that it comprises volunteer, “amateur” vocalists. They sang with commitment throughout–emphatic and robust in the work’s more ebullient portions, and delicately vulnerable in its more inward sections. They also acquitted themselves well in the Requiem’s more knotty contrapuntal sections, including the “Amen” fugue Levin interpolates at the end of the Lacrimosa.

The orchestra, sadly, sounded like something of an afterthought. Rachel Castellanos’s tenor trombone solo in the Tuba mirum and John Bruce Yeh’s supple basset horn playing throughout were highlights of the afternoon. But the greatly reduced string sections conspired with Levin’s sparer orchestrations to leave the accompanying ensemble sounding somewhere between anemic and inaudible. Tammen’s almost exclusive podium focus on the Chorale singers did not help.

The four soloists were an equally mixed bag. Tenor Scott J. Brunscheen and bass David Govertsen made consistently strong contributions, but their female counterparts—soprano Tambra Black and mezzo Karen Brunssen—often sounded strained. As a solo quartet the four came off well enough, the secure lower register somewhat compensating for the shakiness on top.

The program opened with three short a cappella movements. Immortal Bach by Norwegian Knut Nystedt (1915-2014) was sung with the Chorale surrounding the audience (as the score indicates), and created a haunting atmosphere; unfortunately a jangling cell phone obliterated the soft ethereal ending.

O salutaris hostia by Latvian Ēriks Ešenvalds’ (b. 1977) featured two soprano soloists drawn from the Chorale, who elegantly spun melismatic arabesques over a warm vocal accompaniment. Nystedt’s severe O crux made a compelling segue into the darker world of the Requiem.

The Chicago Chorale will perform Rodion Shchedrin’s The Sealed Angel 8 p.m. June 9 at Hyde Park Union Church, and 3 p.m. June 10 at at St. Vincent DePaul Parish in Lincoln Park.


Posted in Performances

One Response to “Chicago Chorale singers deliver in a mixed Mozart/Levin Requiem”

  1. Posted Mar 26, 2018 at 1:30 pm by Marlin Hoover

    A very moving performance. The choral blend is extraordinary.

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