Music of the Baroque review: Jane Glover leads an eloquent account of Mozart's Requiem

By Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune
September 17, 2018

Mozart’s Requiem Mass stands out in the repertoire, and not only because it was penned – at least in part – by the “supreme genius of music,” in the apt words of scholar Nicolas Slonimsky.

Swathed in mystery, the Requiem was commissioned by a figure not known to Mozart, the composer suffering in his deathbed as he struggled to complete it. In the grip of illness, Mozart came to believe – notwithstanding the commission – that this Requiem would be for himself. In a way it was, for he didn’t live to finish the piece; a student well-versed in Mozart’s ways, Franz Xaver Sussmayr, completed it after the composer’s death.

That the movie “Amadeus,” and several other works, falsely blamed Mozart’s tragic demise at age 35 on a rival composer, Antonio Salieri, only has added to the mystique surrounding the Requiem. Precisely where Mozart’s art ended and Sussmayr’s began probably never will be known, but the melodic inspiration and dramatic ingenuity of the piece clearly are Mozart’s, which explains the reverence in which the Requiem still is universally held.

By opening its subscription season over the weekend with the Sussmayr completion of the Requiem, Music of the Baroque set a lofty goal for itself, considering the gravity of the piece and its backstory, as well as its technical and stylistic demands. Led by music director Jane Glover, the ensemble and guest vocal soloists offered a gripping account Sunday afternoon at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. For Glover and colleagues deftly navigated the competing tensions that these days surround works of this vintage.

For those who wish to hear 18th century music performed on modern instruments, Music of the Baroque, as always, offered exactly that, the musicians working with the pitch and tone colors of our era. But for those who prefer to hear historic repertoire dispatched on period instruments and with consideration for early-music performance practice, Music of the Baroque at least provided a comparatively chaste rendition that emphasized clarity and leanness of sound over romantic-era excess and effusion.

Even apart from these issues, however, Glover consistently refused to overstate or overdramatize the Requiem. Fortissimos were carefully chosen and never overbearing; crescendos were measured and tautly controlled. Above all, Glover took pains to ensure that melodic lines sang out, that contrapuntal passages stayed clear to the ear and that, ultimately, the music was allowed to speak for itself, without hyperbole.

Fans of “Amadeus” may have been underwhelmed by the sobriety of this reading, but those who wished to get close to the score’s underlying spirit were richly rewarded.
From the opening notes, Glover established the seriousness of the endeavor, both in the solemnity of the initial orchestral statement and the moderation of the chorus’ dynamics (William Jon Gray was the chorus director).

Still, there was ample drama to be heard in the “Dies Irae,” Glover conveying its message via driving rhythm that didn’t devolve into haste and full-bodied choral work that didn’t become shrill. It was the depth of the choristers’ sound, not the volume, that told the story.

As often is the case, some of the most moving passages emerged in the “Recordare,” the four soloists conjuring an air of calm in a Requiem otherwise streaked with terror and fear as well as faith. Soprano Amanda Majeski proved most effective here — and throughout the work — her tone as full as it was warm, her lines commanding attention above all else. But mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, tenor Jonas Hacker and bass-baritone Eric Owens matched the ardor of Majeski’s singing, the foursome interweaving lines and responding to one another with constant sensitivity.

The program opened with three of the Coronation Anthems that Handel wrote for King George II and Queen Caroline in 1727, the Music of the Baroque performances capturing the regality of the occasion but, again, minus bluster.

It was Mozart’s Requiem, however, that likely packed the house, a hushed audience giving this performance the deliberation it richly deserved.