Thielemann, Christian

Performance DetailsRelease DetailsReviews
Soprano: Sibylla Rubens
Mezzo-Soprano: Lioba Braun
Tenor: Steve Davislim
Bass: Georg Zeppenfeld

Choir: Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Orchestra: Münchner Philharmoniker
Conductor: Christian Thielemann

Date: February, 2006
Venue: Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich
Live Recording

Label: Deutsche Grammophon
Cat No.: 00289 477 5797
Released: November 3, 2006
Thielemann Conducts “The Mozart Requiem”

The tale of Mozart’s swansong continues to be told and retold, yet, more than two centuries after its composition and some four decades since the bizarre circumstances surrounding its genesis came to light, it is still shrouded in myth. The mystery that remains unsolved, indeed unsolvable, is no longer why or how Mozart composed the Requiem but what it might have sounded like had he lived to complete it.

In summer 1791, he was approached, via an anonymous go-between, by Count Franz von Walsegg, a minor Austrian landowner with a quaint penchant for commissioning works secretly, then recopying and performing them at his castle for friends, who were asked to guess the composer. The count wanted a Requiem Mass to commemorate his young wife who had died in February. Mozart accepted the commission, with an advance of half the fee, and set to work. He broke off in late August to devote himself to his new opera, La clemenza di Tito, then resumed at the end of September. A couple of weeks later, his wife Constanze, worried about his deteriorating health, took the score away. He went back to it at the end of November and worked on it until illness stayed his hand, two days before his death on 5 December.

He had finished only the opening Introit and Kyrie, and those two movements were sung at his own Requiem Mass on 10 December in St. Michael’s, Vienna. Of the “Dies irae”, “Tuba mirum”, “Rex tremendae”, “Recordare”, “Confutatis maledictis”, “Domine Jesu” and “Hostias”, Mozart had written down only the vocal parts and continuo bass line. The “Lacrimosa” has vocal parts as well as violin and viola for the first eight bars but then breaks off: at this point Mozart’s strength finally gave out. If there were sketches for the rest of the movements, they are lost.

After his death Constanze, with her eye on the rest of the fee, sought the services of her late husband’s associates in completing the work. She turned first to his close friend, the composer Joseph Eybler, who got as far as scoring much of the “Dies irae” before the awesomeness of the task got the better of him. To finish the job Constanze now settled for Mozart’s less-than-brilliant 25-year-old pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr, who apparently claimed that he and the master had sung and played through the completed sections and talked about instrumentation.

By early 1792, Süssmayr had produced an integral, fully scored Requiem setting, incorporating Eybler’s work (and possibly that of two other, smaller contributors), completing the “Lacrimosa” and composing entirely on his own the missing Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and communion. Unlike Eybler, whose input went directly on to the original manuscript, Süssmayr copied out the entire work, imitating Mozart’s handwriting – probably to avoid Count Walsegg’s suspicion as to the work’s authorship – and even forging his signature. It was this version which was performed on 2 January 1793 at a benefit concert in Vienna for Constanze and her two young sons, and it is this version, and it alone, with all its faults – for the hapless Süssmayr’s work has always elicited a fair measure of derision – which until recent times has embodied “the Mozart Requiem”.

So much for the why and how. Beginning in the early 1970s, there have been numerous attempts, more or less drastic, more or less convincing, to improve upon that text, to reconstruct the what – something closer to the musical conception Mozart may have had in his mind’s ear. And yet, Süssmayr’s completion, ingrained in the musical consciousness, stubbornly remains the choice of most conductors. As the German scholar Christoph Wolff wrote in 1991, it is “the only document that represents the genuine musical truth of the unfinished work . . . its rough juxtaposition and open intermingling of perfection and imperfection draws us directly into the realm and atmosphere of the inner Mozart circle trying to cope with an overwhelming legacy.” Moreover, as the American scholar Thomas Bauman also wrote in 1991, modern attempts to reconstitute a more “authentic” text for Mozart’s Requiem ignore the reality of “art as cultural practice. And it is precisely here that the traditional performing version of the Requiem possesses an authenticity denied all of its younger siblings.”

Hence Christian Thielemann’s decision to perform this familiar version in 2006 in Munich and Vienna and in this recording as his contribution to the anniversary year. Although Mozart is not a composer one generally associates with this conductor, he points out: “In my Kapellmeister years I conducted a huge amount of Mozart. I try to follow a path between the ‘normal’ performance practice and the ostensibly authentic, which sometimes strikes me as sounding too contrived. On the other hand, I want to profit from its findings and insights. Even the use of large-scale forces, like this performance of the Requiem, can achieve fantastic quiet playing and transparency.”

The extremes of contrast that Thielemann implies – in dynamics, texture and expression – are built in to the work itself, indeed, as the late Mozart expert Stanley Sadie put it, “juxtaposed almost kaleidoscopically, often succeeding each other in response to single phrases of the text.” For Mozart there was no contradiction, in the words of another astute Mozart commentator, Nicholas Till, “between the ultimate sanction of punishment and his belief in the infinite forgiveness of God. In the Requiem we find the two positions united within the context of the Catholic liturgy itself. In the succession of its movements the work ceaselessly alternates terror and consolation, visions of hell and visions of heaven.”

However much Mozart there may be in “the Mozart Requiem”, what he did manage to write down before death claimed him is irrefutable proof that those alternating visions were at the heart of his design. Any truthful performance of the work, whether using large- or small-scale forces, will convey that tremendous, poignant conception.
Richard Evidon, July 2006