Gerard Schwarz Rethinks Mozart’s Requiem

United StatesUnited States  Mendelssohn and Mozart: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (violin), Jennifer Zetlan (soprano), Nancy Maultsby (mezzo-soprano), Benjamin Butterfield (tenor), Clayton Brainerd (baritone), Seattle Symphony Chorale, Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 19.5.2012 (BJ)

By the present stage in his career, Gerard Schwarz must have conducted Mozart’s Requiem several dozen times. But, like all good musicians, he has never stopped evolving, and the performance he conducted at this Seattle Symphony concert (again using the version completed by Süssmayr) differed quite substantially in manner from the one he led here early last year.

That had been a powerfully emotional reading, emphasizing grandeur more than textural clarity—which, as I observed in these columns at the time, “is no bad thing in a work of the Requiem’s intense dramatic seriousness and occasional disparities of style.” This time, the conductor’s approach seemed a shade more dispassionate. The textures sounded lighter and at the same time more lucid, and there was no applying of brakes before the various movement’s ending. And yet the expressive force of the work was by no means diminished, and may indeed have been intensified by the sheer transparent clarity of this performance. I noted also the momentary silence in the Kyrie between the words “Kyrie” and “eleison” every time Joseph Crnko’s choir, which goes from strength, sang them. It had escaped my notice last time around, and it’s perhaps a small point, but it illustrated Schwarz’s unfailing concentration on the meaning of the music he conducts and of its text.

He also repeated the move I first heard from him last year, passing directly from the closing measures of the Requiem into a heartfelt reading of another late Mozart choral piece, the short but ravishingly beautiful and inward Ave verum corpus. There is no specific Mozartean mandate for the idea, but it makes wonderful sense both musically and emotionally. Altogether, then, enhanced by the singing of four excellent soloists, by the truly “mirum sonum” Patrick Urion drew from his trombone in the Dies irae, and by crisp timpani-playing by a guest musician aptly named Matthew Drumm, this was a performance of the Requiem fully worthy of its dedication to the memory of philanthropist Jack Benaroya, whose support in the late 1990s was instrumental in enabling the building of the hall that bears his name, and who died at the age of 90 a few days before the concert.

That dazzlingly imaginative and technically adroit violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg was the star of the program’s first half, which offered Mendelssohn’s E-minor Violin Concerto. She, too, never rests on previously garnered laurels, and her performance—prodigal as ever of ideas, some brilliantly illuminating, some perhaps merely idiosyncratic, but all unfamiliar and fresh—was notably different in emphasis from others I have heard her give. This time, rather as in Schwarz’s Mozart after intermission, it was not so much the work’s undoubted romantic afflatus as its nimble, unforced lyricism that formed the focus of her interpretation. Probably encouraged by the small orchestral complement Schwarz was using, with only 23 players making up the string section, she lightened here tone, which is always attractively silvery, and it was the gossamer delicacy of her phrasing and articulation that impressed me most.

Bernard Jacobson