• by Clinton White

Review: Surrounded in legends: Mozart’s Requiem

MOZART’S “Requiem” is surrounded in legends and lies, mystery and myth – even urban myth such as perpetuated by the romantic fiction portrayed in the film “Amadeus”. Even so, this monumental work remains a perennial favourite.

Such was the case for this concert, enjoyed by a jam-packed Albert Hall audience. But we had to wait a bit, because first on the program was a work by the prolific Italian composer, Luigi Boccherini, who, at 13 years Mozart’s senior, was more or less a contemporary of the Austrian master. Boccherini’s “Stabat Mater” is a quite long but lovely if emotional work, starting with an overture and then a libretto of twenty 3-line verses from a 13th century text. It carries a meditative theme; the anguish of Mary as she witnessed the crucifixion of her son, Jesus. The performance was of Boccherini’s 1801 revision, completed twenty years after the original composition.

Roland Peelman conducted the combined Wallfisch Band and ACO2 (an offshoot of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, set up for emerging artists), with soloists Susanah Lawergren and Anna Fraser (sopranos) and Christopher Saunders (tenor).

Much larger forces were at play for the Mozart, with the orchestra augmented by the Sprogis Woods Smith Young Artists, a number of other musicians and Peelman’s own choral group, the Song Company. Soloists were Simone Riksman (soprano), Hannah Fraser (mezzo), Christopher Saunders (tenor) and Andrew Fysh (bass).

In both works, Peelman achieved a beautiful balance of sound across the orchestra, never once overshadowing the quite lovely voices of the soloists, and, for the Mozart, leaving plenty of aural space for the excellent choristers. The soloists worked well together, also achieving a lovely balance of tone and expression between them. Peelman’s tempi were spot-on throughout and the orchestra and choir responded magnificently to his very expressive if somewhat exaggerated conducting style. An element of particular interest in this concert was the use of period instruments, all tuned to 430 hertz as used in the late 18th century. Today’s instruments are tuned slightly sharper, to 440 hertz. The strings were gut-strung, giving them a warmer, mellower sound than their modern-day steel-strung cousins. Elizabeth Wallfisch even played a short piece on her violin just to demonstrate. As well, there were basset horns, keyless bassoons and a range of other instruments, even a baby trombone! This was yet another marvellous concert in the Canberra International Music Festival and justifiably given a marvellous reception by the capacity audience.