Last night the New York Philharmonic went from a whisper to a scream in a performance of two iconic Mozart works that even by this orchestra’s standards were revelatory. The Philharmonic are pairing the Requiem with Mozart’s final piano concerto, No. 27 in B Flat, featuring soloist Richard Goode tomorrow night, March 15 at 8 PM, as well as March 16 at 8 and March 19 at 7:30 PM. If you’ve never seen these pieces before, go – this is a rare chance to get a foundational understanding. If you have, these performances may reorient you, profoundly.
This was not a particularly loud Requiem. Notwithstanding that harrowing jolt where Mozart realizes that things are not going to end well – “Rex! Rex!” the choir implores – and that several later passages are as grand as guignol gets, the orchestra didn’t play them that way. In the early going, conductor Manfred Honeck put his hand to his ear, an admonition to remain hushed, and both the orchestra and the Westminster Symphonic Choir standing against the back wall stayed as sotto-voce and dead serious as they possibly could have been. Many ensembles can’t resist the temptation to make Halloween out of it, but this Requiem fulfilled its function as elegy and also as liturgical music, true to the commission Mozart accepted. Employing his motet Ave Verum Corpus as a solemn summation to this uncompleted version was a respectful acknowledgment that we’ll never know how the composer wanted it to end.
As David Bernard has astutely observed, eighty percent of the Requiem is either repetition or Mozart understudy Franz Sussmayr. How do you save repetition from being redundant? Change the dynamics. What a difference Honeck’s choice made when the introductory theme came around again, this time closer to pine box than velvet. Contrasts between mens’ and women’s voices were striking and distinct, other than in the two bewildering series of quasi-operatic, Handelian eighth note volleys that are so out of place that one assumes it was Sussmayr, not Mozart, who came up with them.
Among the four vocal soloists, soprano Joelle Harvey’s forceful delivery was particularly impactful, as was mezzo-soprano Megan Mikhailovna Samarin’s more understated, moody approach, in her Philharmonic debut. Tenor Ben Bliss and bass Matthew Rose exchanged roles as voices of doom and hope against hope. Snippets of somber Mozart Masonic funeral music made an apt introduction and brought everything full circle.
Much as the Requiem was played through a stained glass window, darkly, the Piano Concerto sparkled with coy humor. Goode’s floating articulacy on the keys, through jaunty, fleeting crescendos, jeweled cascades and some jousting with the orchestra, was unselfconsciously joyous. Likewise, the orchestra were seamless unless a particular moment called for some goofy peek-a-boo from an individual voice – Mozart uses the flute a lot for that. There were a few slight transitory glitches early on, but things like that typically get ironed out after opening night.