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Requiem Aeternam: Mozart’s music on life, loss and peace

Requiem Aeternam: Mozart’s music on life, loss and peace
Requiem Aeternam. (Image credit: WikiCommons)

Four distinguished soloists and a 25-player orchestra recently performed a recital centred on Mozart’s Requiem at the University of Pretoria, delivering a truly memorable concert-going experience.

Choir-music lovers in Pretoria may recognise the name of Michael Barrett, the eminent choir conductor who has led numerous ensembles in the city, including the Chamber Singers, which he founded. Less known (for now, at least) is Raine Pienaar, his first doctoral student at the University of Pretoria (UP), and a 28-year-old alumnus of some of those ensembles himself. Pienaar recently conducted the Chamber Singers in a particularly special project entitled “Requiem Aeternam”, which also served as one of Pienaar’s doctoral recitals.

 

Mozart’s Requiem

Held at UP’s Musaion auditorium, the recital centred on Mozart’s Requiem. Pienaar led the Chamber Singers, four distinguished soloists, and a 25-player orchestra, in what must be the most focused live performance of the Requiem I have ever heard. The Chamber Singers is a project choir, comprised of amateurs who had auditioned and spent months preparing with Pienaar before joining with the professional orchestra. Their evident care and commitment to the programme elevated the performance to a memorable concert-going experience.

Pienaar’s direction kept the energy up and remarkably consistent, especially through some of the later sections where, after about 20 minutes of close concentration, I’ve heard more experienced ensembles falter. Having attended previous performances by the Chamber Singers, I am used to enjoying their plush and luminous sound, as well as the stylish meticulousness kindled by Barrett’s influence. 

What impressed me here was how well they held up to the tough task of integrating with an orchestra, especially in music requiring such fine attention as Mozart’s.

African premiere

Perhaps one particular element that brought notes of freshness to the performance was the African premiere of a new edition of the Requiem, by German composer and conductor Michael Ostrzyga. Mozart died before completing the Requiem, and, starting with his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr, dozens of composers have offered their versions of how he would have finished it. Ostrzyga’s edition (which, like most, is far preferable to that of Süssmayr) introduces some insightful changes to the voicing in the Sanctus and the Benedictus, and adds a spirited “Amen” fugue, based on sketches by Mozart, to the end of the Lacrimosa.

Read more in Daily Maverick: From Madiba to Mahler: Ben Zander’s inspired musical message to all South Africans

Mozart entered his thirties hoping to write more religious music of more substance, and his inordinate facility for dramatic creativity, which had enlivened his operas, brought a distinctive expressive quality to his setting of this sacred text. The full drama of his work was brought to bear with crisp Latin pronunciation, sharp accents, effectively placed crescendoes and diminuendo, and the unity that Pienaar managed to meld between voices and instruments. The orchestra was made up of skilled and experienced musicians, who played with unified purpose and phrasing.

Four unforgettable soloists

Four particular individuals who bore transparent knowledge of Mozart’s gifts and how to furnish them in performance – and whose work made the occasion all the more special – were the soloists enlisted. The baritone Hendré van Zyl, who has made a specialty of Baroque and Classical period works, gave wondrous weight and resonance to this Tuba mirum solo, calling forth the resurrection of the dead. Tenor Chris Mostert stepped in at the eleventh hour, when Tinus Spies fell ill, and filled a tricky and exposed part confidently.

The mezzo soprano was Megan Napier, a young Pretorian who has trained and taught in the US, and whose burnished timbre poured forth effortlessly in rich, lyrical lines. Hanli Stapela, the singing jewel in the UP Music Department’s diadem, is a consummately elegant and experienced singer, who has graced more stages than can be listed, and whose unmistakable soprano voice rang like a crystal bell through the Musaion. How blessed the dead sometimes are, to have such voices assembled to sing their loss.

Brilliant Byrd and a passionate close

If there is one major ill above all others in twenty-first century society, it’s the neglect of the music of William Byrd. The radiant Elizabethan composer was a devout Roman Catholic at a time when recusancy of Protestantism was illegal. His lucent hymn, Ave Verum Corpus, began the programme in a softened a capella prayer for solace. It brought a heartfelt opening to the concert, whose title “Requiem Aeternam” is, after all, a Catholic piety.

The concert ended with a work by the living Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, with the single repeated lyric “Dona nobis pacem” or “Grant us peace”. The choir was accompanied on the organ by the superb Andrea Kayser-Mitas, a member of the UP faculty, in a minimalist sojourn such as you may expect from a contemporary Balto-Slavic choral composer. 

It begins darkly and quietly, on repeated notes in a narrow range, sung in unison, and grows in dynamic and harmonic range to a fifteen-minute froth of tumult and passion. 

The sustained pedal points and close dissonances evoke the abiding pain and persistent grief of loss, and the final note seemed to melt until there was no living breath to carry it. DM

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