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An Impeccable Mozart Requiem

Orange County
Renée and Henry Segerstrom Hall
11/09/2006 -  
W. A. Mozart: Ave Verum Corpus, K. 618
W. A. Mozart: Vesperae Solennes de Confessore, K. 339
W. A. Mozart: Requiem in D Minor, K. 626

Hélène Guilmette (Soprano), Michele Losier (Mezzo-Soprano), Colin Balzer (Tenor), John Fanning (Baritone)

Les Violons du Roy & La Chappelle de Québec, Bernard Labadie (Conductor)

The sweet song of the late Mozart motet, Ave Verum Corpus, grew quietly out of the silence - warm, resonant, simple, lovely. The singing of La Chappelle de Québec was the essence of Mozartean grace. The effect of Les Violons du Roy’s baroque bows and bowing technique on their modern instruments created the impression of a quintessentially classical performance, without vibrato, less archaic than a baroque presentation but more controlled and polite than a 19th century romantic interpretation. Bernard Labadie, the much-admired Canadian specialist who directs these period music ensembles, led with a broad but precise style of conducting.

Labadie and his orchestra and chorus have recently become regular guests both in Southern California and on the East Coast. The performance of Mozart’s Solemn Vespers of 1780 was also exemplary, with a fluid and flawless ensemble between the orchestra and chorus. The four soloists were spirited and well mannered, performing with beautifully sustained pitches throughout the Vespers. Soprano Hélène Guilmette was particularly excellent in both the Beatus Vir and the Laudate Dominum. This solid, authentic Mozart was like a good Bordeaux, with the smooth, unblemished finish of a luxurious Cabernet. What more could one ask for?

The acoustic was not quite as rich and present in seat F101 of the orchestra as it might have been one level up in the orchestra terrace. The massive concrete doors to the concert hall’s reverberation chambers were almost closed at the orchestra level, and 1/3 open at the highest level, much as they had been for the previous several concerts. But the overall effect of the performance and the hall was straight out of the late 18th century, reminding me of having heard Mozart performed in the Teatro Argentina in Rome.

After the intermission, the opening of the Mozart Requiem was absolute purity, rich, severe and crisp. The blend of voices and instruments was utterly faultless. At the close of the Kyrie, the strident musical clamor decayed flawlessly into silence. It comes as no surprise that amongst the myriad of historic recordings of the Mozart Requiem, Bernard Labadie’s recent CD with these very groups is one of the most admired. The scholar Robert Levin’s new edition of the unfinished Requiem is extremely judicious, streamlined and well balanced, perfectly suited to the limited forces of the Violons du Roy. Labadie conducted with restraint, and without relying on a written score. Although some traditionalists may miss the more spacious and grandiloquent interpretations of decades past, this performance was a far cry from the more dramatic Verdi Requiem.

The Dies Irae was full of urgency, but it could have had more power. The chorus of La Chappelle du Roy was forceful but reserved. Colin Balzer’s tenor voice was brightly impeccable, matching the smooth sheen of the trombones. Soprano Hélène Guilmette and mezzo Michele Losier were also excellent, blending fluidly into the ensemble. The four soloists formed an outstanding operatic quartet, listening to each other intently while in fluent musical discourse. In the Lacrimosa, Labadie led a subtle crescendo with a light touch and immaculately clean strings. Then he startled us all when he accidentally threw his baton down onto the stage. The surprise threw him off a bit and for a moment they seemed to lose focus.

Leading the group with only his hands, Labadie quickly marshaled his forces. As he began the Domine Jesu, his focus clearly had returned. The white-tied chorus and orchestra were very strong, inviting us to lose ourselves swimming in the ocean of Mozart. The Sanctus was marked by a resonant, elastic choral bounce. In the Benedictus, the soprano and mezzo vied with each other gorgeously, and the baritone John Fanning also sang beautifully, accentuating the supple character of his voice. As they stood for the Hosanna, the chorus was triumphant.

For the Agnus Dei, the Chapelle du Roy relaxed darkly into the deep universe of Mozart. But in the Lux Aeterna their triumph seemed to fall on the unfertile soil of Orange County. This particular Mozart Requiem felt as if it might be too scholarly for the audience here, too much of a museum piece. The performance may have needed more drive to be truly great. But this stately and gorgeous ensemble, with their exquisite harmonies, deserved a full concert hall. Three fourths of the hall stood in ovation, but the evening was not as magnificent as it might have been.

Thomas Aujero Small



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