Seraphic Fire’s premiere of “complete” Mozart Requiem effectively blends old and new

By David Fleshler

Seraphic Fire performed Mozart's Requiem Friday night in Fort Lauderdale with new sections by composer Gregory Spears.

Seraphic Fire performed Mozart’s Requiem with a new completion by composer Gregory Spears Friday night in Fort Lauderdale.

The story of Mozart’s Requiem is among the best-known in classical music.

The feverish composer races to finish a mass for the dead commissioned by a mysterious Austrian nobleman. He dies with some parts only sketched out and entire sections unwritten. His desperately poor widow Constanze casts about for someone to complete it. She finally hands the task to Franz Xaver Süssmayr, an associate of Mozart, whose dutiful, uninspired completion is still performed today.

Many composers have written alternatives to Süssmayr’s version, and on Friday in Fort Lauderdale the choir Seraphic Fire and the Firebird Chamber Orchestra gave the world premiere of a bold new completion by the well-regarded young composer Gregory Spears.

Unlike many other composers who tried to finish the work, Spears made no attempt to sound like Mozart or like a composer of the Classical period. Rather, as he explained to the audience at All Saints Episcopal Church before the performance, he followed the tradition of religious music as composed not for the concert hall but for the church service, in which music from a wide range of historical periods would be heard.

His new “Sanctus,” “Benedictus” and “Agnus Dei” drew on hundreds of years of music history, with echoes of Bach and Mozart, glowing Romantic harmonies, glints of contemporary dissonance and the effective use of timpani and long-held bass notes to give a pre-Enlightenment sense of religious awe and certitude.

In place of Süssmayr’s loud, pompous and empty “Sanctus,” Spears’ version opened with a quiet air of mystery and expectation, with turbulent, hushed tones from the choir. The solemn “Benedictus” used slow-moving harmonies that sound like they arrived from the late 19th century and minimalist patterns in the strings to achieve a sense of hard-won peace and tranquility. In the “Agnus Dei,” grimly moving triplets ascended and fell over dark and insistent repeated harmonic structures in the choir, giving the movement a dark and pulsing sense of religious solemnity.

Which version is better? For all its flatness and lack of music interest, Süssmayr’s would be preferred if you want something that sounds Mozartian in style, if not in quality. But if you would rather hear a completion that offers more musical rewards than simply a respectful attempt of musical reproduction, you may prefer Spears’ version. Or we could forget the idea of a completion at all and just appreciate Mozart’s work in its unfinished state and leave it at that.

Under music director Patrick Dupré Quigley, the choir sounded great through the work of both Spears and Mozart, with dead-on intonation, knife-edge precision in the most complex counterpoint and great tonal beauty. The Firebird Chamber Orchestra blended admirably, with a rich, burnished tone and evocative playing in brass and winds that never overpowered the singers. The only flaw was the intonation problems that have long plagued the orchestra’s violins.

In the “Tuba mirum,” there was fine singing by baritone John Buffett, tenor Brad Diamond, mezzo-soprano Virginia Warnken and soprano Molly Quinn, giving a performance that built from its simple opening into a complex and exciting movement, with voices that blended well while retaining their individuality. Adding to the performance was the smooth solo work of trombonist Richard Harris. The final section, the “Lux aeterna” was a tour-de-force of hard-driving counterpoint, building and building to a final burst of dynamism that brought the Requiem to an energetic conclusion.

The performance opened with the choir entering slowly from the back of the church and giving a pristine performance of Bach’s “O Jesu Christ, Meins Lebens Licht.” And after the Requiem, the concert closed with Mendelssohn’s “Verleih Uns Frieden Gnädichlich,” with a prominent, gracefully performed part for the cellos and ethereal singing in the choir.

Seraphic Fire will repeat the program 8 p.m. Saturday at First United Methodist Church in Coral Gables and 3:30 p.m. Sunday at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Seraphic Fire’s premiere of “complete” Mozart Requiem effectively blends old and new”

  1. Posted Nov 17, 2013 at 9:54 pm by Martin Fortgang

    I have heard, performed and studied the Mozart Requiem for over 50 years. This is by far the most original and best performed version I have ever heard. Bravo to Gregory Spears and Seraphic Fire!

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Sat Nov 16, 2013
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