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The Washington Bach Consort Opens its Season With Sacred Mozart

Friday night, a sparsely filled Music Hall at Strathmore saw the Washington Bach Consort’s season open with a Mozart tribute that was a firmament of little stars set around the center of the evening, Mozart’s Requiem, this too-beautiful-to-be-all-sad moon, shining a benign and moving light on our coming to terms with the afterlife.

available at Amazon

available at Amazon

available at Amazon

available at Amazon

available at Amazon
Of course Mozart’s own death mid-Requiem is the attractive story; too ironic, too dramatically sound not to exploit. This leads to the unfinished work’s claim to perpetual center stage among his sacred works. But beyond the deathbed romance á la Pushkin/Shaffer, there are other great and beautiful sacred works of various length that Mozart wrote and deserve more attention. The first half’s offering of these shorter gems was therefore particularly welcome, interesting and enjoyable.

The Epistle Sonata K.329 (with Scott Dettra’s prominent organ contribution) and Regina Coeli K.276 (featuring the chorus and very fine soloists from its midst) are two 1779 works of Mozart’s that are every bit as charming and delightful as you’d expect good Mozart to be.

Young Mozart – perhaps up to 17 – is often charming too, but more in the sense of ‘competent’, not ‘inspirational’. A Mendelssohn-like composing child-genius he was not, despite popular perception. But if not all of Mozart’s youthful work is beset with the same brilliance as his later work, Exultate Jubilate K.165, written just before his 17th birthday, more than hints at the great things that were to come. When sung as marvelously as did Christine Brandes it is a particular treat. The work, written for castrato Venanzio Rauzzini (hence the Italianate Latin in the performance) tested Ms. Brandes’ bottom range (she passed successfully, of course) and presented her plain beautiful, utterly tasteful voice from its best side. With her many appearances in the region one might be tempted to think of her as a ‘local singer’. Were that the case, she’d be the region’s pride.

Ave Verum Corpus K.618 was composed 12 years later. Although just a few minutes long, its impact is momentous. Its hushed and somber beauty is so heartbreakingly tender that for 46 bars your render all your troubles over and give yourself up to that – as Romain Rolland called it – oceanic feeling. Or, if religiously inclined, God.

A good requiem performance is of course to die for. If some deaths are bombastic, violent, secular affairs (say Verdi, Britten, Brahms), others are gentle, happier embraces of the ever-after. Take Duruflé, for example. Mozart’s work – and perhaps part of its genius – can be both: Bernstein-like brooding and brimstone-heavy or airy and light (Harnoncourt!). With the 30-plus sized, usually fleet, Historically Informed Practice–band of the Washington Bach Consort the Requiem was certainly on the gentle side – not no less moving for it. The balance with the just about 30 head strong chorus was ideal and the four soloists standing behind the orchestra were easily able to make themselves be heard. Indeed, in the very pleasing acoustic of the Strathmore hall, the choir sounded rich and full beyond their numbers.

Among the soloists it was unsurprisingly Christine Brandes who stood out. She sounds as though the simply sings - no more… nothing fancy or artificial. If anything, she can sound stern at times. Jessica Grieg’s mezzo held up nicely in comparison and thankfully the MET competition winner didn’t sound like transplanted from La Giaconda into a Requiem. Tenor Dan Snyder was less easy on the ears. A slurred, pressed sound hinted at ‘trying too hard’; the result somewhere at the opposite end of natural. The courage to sing softly, even in big spaces, could be all that is necessary to turn off that unflattering denatured quality. Curtis Streetman had to perform against every bass on every version of the Tuba Mirum any audience member has ever heard. Ideally the opening low notes roar with commanding presence, like a rock in the sea. Mr. Streetman’s voice did not quite give that – but he gave well. The choir meanwhile audibly reveled in what must be one of the most rewarding scores to sing as a member. The audience reveled likewise.