Bertini, Gary

Performance DetailsRelease DetailsReviews
Soprano: Krisztina Láki
Mezzo-Soprano: Doris Soffel
Tenor: Robert Swensen
Bass-Baritone: Thomas Quasthoff

Choir: Cologne West German Radio Chorus
Orchestra: Cologne West German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Gary Bertini

Date: May 18, 1991
Venue: Cologne, Germany

Label: Phoenix Edition
Cat No.: 116
Released: July 29, 2008
If the patina of age is one of the criteria by which recordings claim historical status, these performances are probably just shy of old enough to qualify. Both, as noted above, were captured at live events.

Mozart’s Requiem, left undone at his death—the extent of its incompletion still a subject of debate—remains one of the most enduring staples of the choral-orchestral repertoire. As such, readers will undoubtedly be familiar with the piece from more than one recording of it, and quite possibly in more than one reconstituted version of its missing parts. The most widely accepted and most often performed version, which includes the one given in the performance here, is the one credited to Mozart’s student Franz Xaver Süssmayr. But even this accreditation must be qualified. We know that Süssmayr’s contribution to the score came later and last, after at least two other of Mozart’s pupils, Franz Jakob Freystädtler and Joseph Leopold von Eybler had been recruited by Mozart’s widow, Constanze, to complete the unfinished torso; and Maximilian Stadler had a hand in it as well. It has even come to light that Johann Georg Albrechtsberger may have been Constanze’s first choice, preferring that an established, well-connected composer with a recognized name work on her late husband’s score rather than one of his students; but Albrechtsberger apparently turned her down. Poor Süssmayr seems to have been a distant fifth on Constanze’s list; yet it was he who persevered to the end, and made the largest and most crucial contribution.

Yet even Süssmayr’s has not been the final word, as we have learned from more recent interventions by Robert Levin (recorded by Martin Pearlman), Duncan Druce, (recorded by Roger Norrington), and Richard Maunder (recorded by Christopher Hogwood). Comers to this 17-year old Cologne Requiem may find it necessary to make some mental adjustments; for what we have here is a beautifully preserved performance that is decidedly traditional, but far from dated. A spate of recent recordings, however, on period instruments and/or in alternative completions have tended to peel away the Romantic accretions and made an attempt to present the score in starker relief and bolder readings than what we have here. I am thinking in particular of Colin Davis’s new LSO Live performance; and for those not averse to Levin’s fine-tuning adjustments to Süssmayr’s scoring, but still on modern instruments, the superb 2002 Linn recording with Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

But these are requiems for a new century, one at less than a decade old that has already seen its share of both natural and manmade disasters, tragedy, and suffering. For the big, cinematic approach that wrings every last ounce of wrath and supplication from its pages, Bertini’s stands among the best I’ve heard. His lineup of soloists is near to ideal. Only soprano Krisztina Laki gets a bit carried away early on in her “Te decet hymnus” solo with a couple of swooning portamentos, but she redeems herself beautifully in the “Tuba mirum” quartet, which evidences some very finely tuned ensemble singing. Tempos tend to be just a hair sluggish in the slower movements—for example, the opening Requiem and the Hostias—and they don’t crackle with electricity in the faster movements—the Dies irae and the Confutatis, for instance. But on balance, Bertini is not slow. In fact, at 50:37, he comes in only two seconds behind Davis. The difference between Bertini and Davis, however, is as nothingness compared to Mackerras who manages to dispatch the piece in an incredible 46:43, even though, amazingly, in a couple of movements—the Sanctus and the Benedictus, he’s actually a few seconds slower than Davis and Bertini. What all of this goes to prove is what I’ve long maintained, which is that our perceptions of forward momentum in music are not purely a function of tempo. The size and volume of Bertini’s orchestra and chorus are such as to make his performance seem a bit slower than it actually is.

The “Great” C-Minor Mass is also a masterpiece left unfinished, but unlike the Requiem, not for the reason that Mozart expired while occupied in the writing of it. It was in fact composed almost a decade earlier, in 1782, presumably as a thanks offering for his marriage to Constanze Weber. The Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, (partially lost and requiring some reconstruction) and Benedictus were completed, but the Credo stops after the “Et incarnatus est,” and there is scant evidence that an Agnus Dei was contemplated, save for a sketch for a “Dona nobis pacem.” It is not known why Mozart abandoned the work—perhaps his honeymoon with Constanze was a short one—but what there is of it is on a scale and of a grandeur far surpassing any of the composer’s early masses. H. C. Robbins Landon, Richard Maunder, and Robert Levin have each contributed their own performing editions of a speculatively completed version. Levin’s can be heard on a 2005 Hänssler Classic CD with Helmuth Rilling. The Bertini recording at hand presents the score as Mozart left it, but with necessary touchups supplied by Helmut Eder.

As with the Requiem, Bertini’s reading is writ large. The perilous soprano part, which requires a vocal range extending from that of a basso profundo to the echolocation sounds emitted by bats, (I exaggerate slightly) is taken in stride by a magnificent Arleen Auger. While the parts for mezzo, tenor, and bass are not as frightful, they are still quite demanding, and are deftly delivered by Soffel, Moser, and Roberts. The sections of the chorus and the orchestral choirs are clearly delineated and exceptionally well balanced.

If you are in the market for a truly outstanding recording of these works on modern instruments and in traditional but not out-of-date or unfashionable performances, this release can be unreservedly recommended.

Jerry Dubins, Fanfare