United Kingdom Elgar, Mozart/Levin: Alisa Weilerstein (cello), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 29.09.2013 (SRT)
Elgar: Cello Concerto
Mozart: Requiem (completed and edited by Robert D. Levin, 1996)
Miah Persson (sop)
Ruxandra Donose (mezzo)
Jeremy Ovenden (ten)
Neal Davies (bass)
National Youth Choir of Scotland (NYCOS)
This time last year I complained that the BBCSSO only does three concerts per year in Edinburgh. This year, alas, they’re only doing two! However, they pulled out the big guns for this, the first one, with a cast that includes Runnicles, Alisa Weilerstein and Miah Persson. Weilerstein is an exceptionally impressive young cellist. When I heard her doing the Rococo Variations in Paris, I praised her lyricism and her attention to detail, and those qualities were even more in evidence in her reading of the Elgar concerto. Right from the opening flourish she put every inch of herself into her performance, investing all of her ability without ever coming across as showy, managing to sound songful yet mournful at the same time. She uses the right amount of vibrato to point up Elgar’s great lyrical sweeps, and yet her passagework in the Scherzo managed to be lightning fast and still extraordinarily precise. Runnicles’ reading of the work was introverted and melancholy. When the winds entered for the second theme of the first movement, they sounded as though a dark pall had been cast over them, and the transitions between the different sections of the music felt troubled and uncertain, as if doubting that they would ever really get there. He and Weilerstein were at their best in the Adagio third movement, whose endless, lyrical phrases seemed to unfold in one great exhalation, beautifully sustained and unutterably poignant.
Mozart’s Requiem was given here in Robert Levin’s edition of 1996 rather than the more familiar Süssmayr completion. In his programme note, Levin makes a point of saying that his aim was to revise as little as possible: instead he wanted to restore and reinterpret some of Mozart’s intentions that his pupil was either unwilling or unable to include. It’s a fascinating alternative, very familiar for the main part, but from time to time you get jolted out of your familiarity by one of Levin’s touches, even if it’s just an element of the orchestration. The first big change comes at the end of the Lachrymosa, for which Levin provides a grand double fugue in line with the common traditions of 18th Century church music. Similarly, he extends the Hosanna fugue at the end of the Sanctus into something extensive, and he writes a passage of modulation so that its reprise at the end of the Benedictus can occur in the same key as it does in the original (Süssmayr writes the first one in D while the second is in B flat).
What really matters, though, is that it is performed well, and indeed it was. NYCOS seem to be going from strength to strength under the leadership of Christopher Bell, and its young singers were the finest thing about this performance. They bring energy, commitment and passion to their singing, coupled with expressivity and tightness that would do credit to a choir of much more experienced singers, helped at times by Runnicles’ preference for clipped consonant sounds. The quartet of soloists were starry, crowned by the creamy soprano of Miah Persson and the passionate tenor of Jeremy Ovenden, though Neil Davies was a touch on the gravelly side. The (slightly reduced) orchestra also sounded excellent, getting right inside the dark textures of Mozart’s score, helped by some marvellously characterful trombone playing. How excellent, too, to have a pair of genuine basset horns in the ranks!
If you want to check out Levin’s edition for yourself then you can do so because the same programme was performed in Glasgow last Thursday night and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. You can hear it here until October 3rd. The interval feature, by the way, is an excellent examination of Levin’s edition led by Stephen Johnson, well worth a listen from anyone who loves Mozart’s Requiem, in whatever completion.