It is a well known story: the mysterious stranger in grey (the servant of a Count Walsegg) offering Mozart a generous fee for a Requiem Mass to be written in secrecy; the Count intending to claim it as his own at a memorial service for his wife. Mozart was already in his final illness; he perished shortly after composing the scant outlines of the Requiem up to the Hostias, orchestrating very little himself. Perhaps he left scraps of paper containing ideas for the outer movements, perhaps not. In the event, his wife Constanze in need of money, offered the Requiem to the publishers Breitkopf & Hartel claiming that Mozart had given his (hapless) assistant Franz Xavier Sussmayr instructions for the work's completion. This was probably an exaggeration designed to lend an air of authenticity to the completed work; Constanze was probably shrewder in business than her divinely gifted husband. There has been grousing about Sussmayr's effort since it's completion but no other attempt has surpassed it since 1792 and Gardiner uses this version, potently defended in the excellent notes by Erik Smith that accompany this DVD. Also included on this DVD is Mozart's Mass in C Minor, meant as a wedding gift for Constanze (and possibly a peace offering to Leopold Mozart, his angry father). It too was left incomplete by Mozart; had he finished it, the Mass would have rivaled Bach's great B Minor Mass in scale. This performing edition was completed by Alois Schmitt (in 1901) and John Eliot Gardiner.
This DVD presents a concert filmed at the Palau de la Musica Catalana, Barcelona in December 1991, commemorating the 200th anniversary of Mozart's death to the month. It features Gardiner's regular soloists: soprano Barbara Bonney, mezzo-soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter, tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson and bass Alastair Miles. The Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists serve as Mr. Gardiner's authentic instruments orchestra and chorus. Can it be 25 years that I have been listening to this superb group of musicians perform music from the Renaissance to the advent of the modern era? It can and it is. They are perfection on this disc; their use of original instruments long past the early days of scratchy strings and squawking horns. The reduced instrumental forces allow one to hear the inner voices of each piece, lending them a chamber music intimacy. Especially impressive are the horns and woodwinds with their clarity of tone and perfect intonation. Period horns and winds are notoriously difficult to play. The period percussionists, who use smaller wooden mallets that provide a sharp crack to the tuttis, must also be praised for their precision. The entire orchestra sounds as fine as I've ever heard them.
As for the voices: the Monteverdi Choir, one of the earliest period choruses, are superb. Their judicious use of vocal embellishment provides a clarity of tone and diction that allows each word to linger in the air, ripe for the picking. The soloists are equally as precise, equally as good. Never once is the sound muddy or are the vocal lines blurred. Their's is a wonderful performance of Mozart's often delicate vocal writing. It is a group effort, so I single out no one.
As for Conductor Gardiner, it is his vision that provides the glue holding these individual performers together. His conducting is spot on, although a minor quibble of mine has me wishing he'd increased the intensity level slightly. I found it lacking in movements like the Lacrimosa. This may be an artifact from the culture wars that accompanied the nascent "authentic performance" movement. This as well as the inevitable velocity that Mr. Gardiner imparts to all his performances: the period performer's credo that all traces of the "Romantic era" performing tradition must be expunged, even annhilated. This performing philosophy is not a problem in the two works at hand but in Gardiner's Beethoven performances, for example, I find it a little off-putting. On this DVD, however, Gardiner conducts Mozart in a style I've come to admire over the years.
The film is digitally remastered and very clear with no discernable video artifacts. It is recorded in color with an aspect ratio of 4:3. The region codes are NTSC 123456. The menu screens are in English. There are the usual subtitle languages. Sound formats are LPCM stereo and DTS 5.1. On higher-end A/V systems there is a significant difference between the two, with DTS providing greater presence, a larger illusion of space in the soundfield and a sense of "liveness" I have found in none of the other formats (including Dolby 5.1). Lower-end systems may not reveal much difference. Extras include an extensive Mozart chronology featuring a list of his travels (extensive) and his works (awe-inspiring), and a lovely picture gallery. I wish more DVD's were as thoughtful in their presentations.
This is a superb disc. John Eliot Gardiner, his English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir have been producing music of excellence for decades. This is an example of it. If you are unaware of him, this is a wonderful place to begin your journey of discovery. Old hands know what to expect. I give it my highest possible recommendation.