Mozart wrote his Requiem as a mass for the dead, but the music contains the very stuff of life: pathos and fear, love, judgement, salvation. Musicologist Franz Beyer’s 20th-century edition brings these facets into vivid relief, and on Wednesday John Storgårds and NACO performed it with a sense of discovery that peeled layers of patina off its familiar face.
There is nothing precious or facile about Storgårds’ interpretation. His is a passionate, boldly presented vision, with firm, vigourous counterpoint, silky melodic lines, energetic tempi, and above all a sense of humanity, expressed through breath and struggle, nobility and frailty.
Storgårds has an unerring sense of drama, with an ear toward the ecclesiastic theatricality of the both text and music of the Requiem. The Dies Irae had ferocious bite; the cries of “Salva Me” in the Rex Tremendae were thrilling in their sense of quiet despair. The gently sobbing Lacrimosa built to a fist-shaking climax, a sort of anguished cry against mortality itself. There was rich, dark-hued, deeply satisfying playing from the clarinets and bassoons, and an eloquent trombone solo by Colin Traquair in the Tuba Mirum.
Storgårds is exceptionally attentive to his vocal soloists. Before the Requiem, he surrounded soprano Karina Gauvin in a warm, glowing embrace of strings for her exuberant, dazzlingly articulated Exsultate, Jubilate. Gauvin’s lofty, angelic tone and shapely phrasing shone just as brightly in her Requiem solos.
Young Canadian tenor Andrew Haji was also impressive, with one of the most serenely beautiful Mozartean voices I’ve heard in years. But Allyson McHardy’s attractive, blue-suede mezzo was often overpowered, while bass-baritone Christian Van Horn sounded strident and wooden, with an unpleasant, thick vibrato.
Although there were some fine moments from the choir, especially the men, the ensemble seemed to be too small, or placed too far back, for the size and weight of the orchestra. Sopranos in particular needed much more horsepower — the high notes often simply disappeared — and the section sang consistently flat.
The concert began with The Messenger by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. Silvestrov uses fragments of Mozart and distorts them through a hypnotic haze of echoing strings. The effect is like a faint memory of music, the ghostly outline of a dream melody refracted through a hall of mirrors.
The concert repeats Thursday evening.