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Mozart's Requiem a brilliant finale for Symphony festival
Octavio Roca, Chronicle Music Critic
Monday, July 2, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle


A heartbreaking, imperfect masterpiece, Mozart's Requiem in D Minor was the great composer's valediction to the world. He left it unfinished on his deathbed in 1791, left us all for centuries in stunned gratitude for his genius.

The ancient words for the mass of death and resignation became in Mozart's hands the music of humanity's triumph, of hope. That music soared Friday at Davies Hall, as Sir Neville Marriner brought the San Francisco Symphony's Mozart Festival to a climax with a glorious interpretation of the Requiem, preceded by a resplendent reading of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-Flat Major. This was the orchestra at its best.

It was also Marriner at his most persuasive. It is almost too easy to take for granted the enormous effect this British conductor has had on our understanding of Mozart, heroic labors that extend from the founding of his Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and his megapopular soundtrack recording to the film "Amadeus" right through his current revelations about music that is obviously close to his heart. A consistent disrespecter of musical cant and fashion, Marriner at Davies seemed enraptured by plain, old-fashioned inspiration.

Musical purists of recent stripe would have found his direction unimpeachable. Not just the assured string attacks from the start of the Piano Concerto, but also the impeccable singing of Vance George's San Francisco Symphony Chorus was impressive. The choral articulation in the fiendish divisions of the Kyrie, and the almost cruel clarity and power of the Dies Irae, were models of large forces sublimated into a message of rare immediacy and intimacy.

There was a sensuality in the trombone's accompaniment to the bass Tuba Mirum that eased the way for the tenor then the entire quartet to fall in the spirit of Mozart's prayer. The vocal soloists were well matched, from the girlish timbre and unerring pitch of Heidi Grant Murphy's soprano to the warm, embracing tones of Michael George's bass. The colors of Susanne Mentzer's mezzo suggest more vocal heft than is actually evident in a big hall, but the gutsiness of her phrasing added welcome tension, especially in the Ingemisco quartet. Stanford Olsen, a true Mozart stylist, brought sheer joy with his every vocal entrance.

Marriner, for his part, did even more. The last notes of Lux Aeterna were clearly in view as the intense and dark Requiem began, and there was a sense of inevitability about the whole affair. Here was classical purity delivered with a romantic smile, Baroque dance rhythm drenched in modern melancholy.

Lars Vogt, the young German pianist who joined Marriner and the orchestra for the Piano Concerto No. 27, followed the conductor's lead and let no lovely detail blur the sublime vision of the whole. Piano and orchestra alike seemed to live the tender pulse of the opening Allegro. The stately simplicity of Vogt's entrance in the Larghetto only amplified the subtle dynamic shadings of the orchestra's echoes of the first theme.

If Vogt sounded a tad overenthusiastic in the downward runs of the final Allegro -- and if Marriner's own tempos for the strings' insistent attacks in the Requiem's Sanctus seemed perhaps too deliberate -- these are quibbles. Each musical gesture made sense of the larger phrases that followed, and the whole in each case dazzled. The audience reaction, by the way, was rapturous.

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