BBC Proms reviews

Prom 69 review – Crisp performances of Mozart by Raphaël Pichon and Pygmalion

7 September 2023

The French early music ensemble stitches together Mozart’s Requiem with rarely performed short works by the same composer into a strangely shaped coat of many colours.

Prom 69

Pygmalion ensemble with Raphaël Pichon & Beth Taylor (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Probably every composer has a collection of oddments in the bottom drawer of their oeuvre: sketches for works that were either abandoned or fully developed; inconsequential pieces written for somebody’s birthday, or to make a fast buck. Raphaël Pichon and Pygmalion opted to present a selection of Mozart’s bric-a-brac on Thursday evening, as a way of augmenting (by interleaving them between movements) a performance of the composer’s 1791 unfinished Requiem.

Chosen for their relationships of key or mood to the main work, the pieces are nearly all charming in their way; it’s unlikely they would otherwise see concert outings, and the excellent quality of the performances they were given certainly made it worth one’s while hearing them. The four soloists gave a well-balanced account of the double canon Ach, zu kurz ist unsers Lebenslauff; Meistermusik – a sketch that later, minus its unison male voice component, became Masonic Funeral Music – was full of gnarly woodwind lines, complemented by the calm unison of the men’s voices; the short four-part choral setting of a stand-alone Kyrie (sung, oddly, to a section of Psalm 51), gave us a taste of the choir’s exacting abilities with counterpoint; a reworking of a section of incidental music to the play Thamos, King of Egypt, reset, for bass solo and chorus as Ne pulvis et cinis not only gave bass Alex Rosen a chance to exercise his gloriously rich lower register, but the uneasy woodwind, the slowly driving strings and the forced sibilants of the choral text summoned perfectly the darkness of ‘dussst and ashess’. Malakai Bayoh, the angelic treble voice du jour, lent his ethereal tones to No. 2 of Five Solfeggios – effectively a ‘vocalise’ version of the ‘Christe eleison’ from the Mass in C minor – to great effect (the inclusion allowing him more range and expression than his rather ‘bolted on’ plainsong recitations of In paradisum that bookended the concert).

The two most enjoyable items, though, were the motet Quis te comprehendat and the Church Song O Gottes Lamm, and these certainly deserve to be brought out more often as short concert fillers. The former is Mozart’s adaptation of the Adagio from his Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments, and its mood of sublime calm was further enhanced by the quiet, largely homophonic four-part chorus. The latter is a strange beast: its German text and strophic form of accompanied melody for soloist (plus the repetition, as an unaccompanied chorale, of the first half) give it a distinctly Lutheran feel (albeit that it was written as a response to a drive by Emperor Joseph II to make Catholic services shorter and more accessible). Here, it allowed Cardiff Singer of the World mezzo-soprano finalist Beth Taylor to delight us with her gloriously rich voice which has an uncanny resemblance to that of the late great Kathleen Ferrier.

While there was a certain academic nicety to including the tiny fragment of an Amen that was Mozart’s sketch for a fugal movement to end the Dies Irae, musically (it ends mid phrase), it was unsatisfying.

“…the pieces are nearly all charming in their way…”

Prom 69

Alex Rosen (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

The performance standard as a whole, though, was excellent, and was a complete contrast to the unbalanced and fuzzy concert containing the Mass in C minor earlier in the season by Dunedin Consort, another early music specialist group. Pichon’s arrangement of forces onstage (placing the trombones in the centre, for example, and opting for a small, tightly knit orchestra) worked extremely well, and the instruments never swamped the chorus – indeed, the focused and entirely synchronised nature of the choral singing ensured that text was to the forefront. The attacks on ‘Dies Irae’ ‘Confutatis’ and ‘Rex tremendae’, for example, were spat out (with perhaps, occasionally, a little too much ejective quality (Khhv!) on the Germanic quoniam and quantus).

It wasn’t all aggression, though, and Pichon throughout ensured that all of Mozart’s (and Süssmayr’s) nuances of dynamic and expression – in both orchestra and chorus – were brought to our attention. The counterpoint everywhere was meticulously delivered in an almost detached way (the final ‘Cum Sanctis fugue was exemplary in its control of energy and dynamic shading); the stateliness of the ‘Sanctus’ was contrasted by the ‘swung’ feel of the ‘Osanna’ (with its emphasised double Ns); the dynamic shifts in ‘Domine Jesu’ were exactly considered to provide maximum timbral variety; the controlled hysteria of the opening of ‘Agnus Dei’ stood in stark opposition to the astonishingly quiet ‘Dona eis requiem’.

Mention has been made of the fine quality of singing from the bass and mezzo soloists. The soprano Sandrine Piau (standing in for the sadly indisposed Erin Morley) brough a lovely bell-like tone to her top register in ‘Te decet’; tenor Laurence Kilsby has a gorgeously mellifluous tone that would absolutely melt the heart if applied to Neapolitan song, but, while there was nothing in the slightest wrong with his delivery, it just felt too sunny for a Requiem. The four soloists blended extremely well, though, and ‘Recordare’ was even more of a delight than ever.

Did it all work, though, this strange ‘Mozart’s car boot sale’ of an evening? It was certainly seamless – there were no pauses, as each ‘movement’ was attacca. One might also argue that the Requiem is a fractured work anyway, as what we have is part Mozart, part Süssmayr, and bringing more Mozart to the party isn’t doing any harm. Certainly the non-Requiem material stood in for sections of the liturgy where no music is present (albeit that it was odd to break the usually liturgically continuous tract of ‘Dies Irae’ still more than Mozart does, by inserting the Solfeggio right in the middle of it), but, on balance, despite the enjoyable performances, it was probably a worthy exercise that didn’t really inspire repetition.

• Prom 69 can be audio streamed from BBC Sounds.

• Details of the 2023 BBC Proms season can be found here.

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