Mozart’s Requiem
A selective survey of recordings by Ralph Moore

I have found a “perfect” recording – if such exists – of this great, unfinished work to be elusive but have for many years settled on one particular favourite which for me endures, despite being rather venerable; of that more anon, as to reveal its identity here would require a spoiler alert – unless, of course, you would prefer to skip all the preliminaries and go to the foot of this survey to peruse my choices. My preferences are complicated not just by the dictates of personal taste but also by the question of whether Mozart’s Requiem should be performed in period or modern/traditional style, whose completion should be used – Süssmayr’s being far from the only option – and which recordings to include and omit in a survey, as there must be over sixty at least in stereo and digital sound – rather too many to permit comprehensiveness. As it is, I have expanded my knowledge of extant recordings to include a dozen in period style and have thereby turned up some welcome surprises. The discovery of a sketch for an Amen fugue in 1962 prompted further completions which elaborated and incorporated it into the conclusion of the sequence in the Lacrimosa. There are in fact now around fifteen different versions, most of which use that fugue, some of which tinker conservatively and others more radically with Süssmayr’s work – although I have never felt his completion to be as inadequate as some have opined and think it a great deal better than nothing at all. It was based on a first – subsequently abandoned – attempt by contemporary composer Joseph von Eybler and possibly both explicit instructions from Mozart and lost “scraps of paper” containing themes and ideas for completion of the remaining unfinished movements.  Being no musicologist, I have been selective and simply chosen and assessed recordings on the basis of which work for me. I recently reviewed this recording conducted by John Nelson which was frankly poor, so I provide that link not as a recommendation but a caveat. I have ignored partial completions and modern realisations which do not attempt to emulate Mozart’s style and confined my survey to those in good sound on CD. As a result, a total of forty-one recordings are considered here – which, I would submit, is not too scanty a sample.

There was a notable shift in tempi from around the 1980s onward, as ideas concerning “authentic” speeds evolved. Average durations of the work before then were from around 54 or 55 minutes to as long as over an hour – but as early as 1961, Karl Richter was clocking in at 51 minutes. Despite being the first and only one of the dozen period performances here not to use baroque pitch – a semitone lower than standard modern pitch – it was of course Harnoncourt who led the charge at under 50 minutes in 1982 and that sort of speed soon became the norm; every recording post 1990 is considerably faster.

I was struck while doing this survey by the preponderance of “Viennocentric”, Germanic and English recordings – around a dozen each of those three provenances respectively. Comparatively few have been made French or American outfits and none by Italians or Russians; I guess choral Mozart is still not as big there. By the by, although it can grate on the Anglos-Saxon ear, it is correct in this context to employ the authentic Germanic pronunciation of the Latin liturgical text .

I have provided links to previous reviews on MusicWeb wherever I could find them. Most of these recordings have been uploaded onto YouTube, which is very useful for purposes of sampling – and indeed complete listening.

The Recordings

Bruno Walter, 1956 – Orfeo d’Or [58] mono
Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra         
Lisa Della Casa; Ira Malaniuk; Anton Dermota; Cesare Siepi

Despite being in live, mono sound, the cast and conductor of this recording demand its consideration, especially as it is paired with a highly energised, very modern-sounding, account of a favourite symphony, No. 25, KV 183 (of Amadeus fame).

However, the opening is very stately indeed and the Kyrie really lumbers, hence the overall running time, and a bit of coughing is irritating; the organ sounds like The Phantom of the Opera on steroids and the chorus is boomy and distorted – none of which sounds like much of a recommendation, I admit. Nonetheless, this being Bruno Walter, there is great grandeur and sincerity about its delivery and the solo singing, beginning with Lisa Della Casa’s poised, silvery soprano, is superb. There is no better bass than Cesare Siepi: steady as a rock, beautiful and sepulchral of tone. The ring and power of Anton Dermota’s tenor is such a welcome antidote to twittery, white-voiced exponents and Bayreuth stalwart Ira Malaniuk brings Wagnerian trenchancy to her contribution.

There is no sense in which this can be a prime recommendation but it is worth a place on the shelves of those who admire great singing and Old School conducting.

Karl Böhm, 1956 – Philips [60] mono
Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Symphony Orchestra
Teresa Stich-Randall; Ira Malaniuk; Waldemar Kmentt; Kurt Böhme

Another even slower recording in mono presents a prospect similar to the Walter version, in that the chorus is fuzzy, the sound boxy and the tempi glacial – but again we have some ethereal soprano singing from the soprano, the same fine mezzo-soprano, a renowned tenor and a big, solid bass in Kurt Böhme, even if he is clumsy in his phrasing; nor is Kmentt as elegant as Dermota. The dogged plod of Böhm’s conducting remains something of a turn-off, however, and will appeal only to those older listeners imprinted by recordings which emphasise majesty over momentum. Somehow, his later recording, although even slower, has more flow and drive.

Hermann Scherchen, 1958 – Westminster [62] stereo
Wiener Akademie Kammerchor; Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera      
Sena Jurinac; Lucretia West; Hans Löffler; Frederick Guthrie

I am generally a Scherchen admirer, but the opening here is absurdly lugubrious; he makes Karl Böhm sound positively hyperactive. That continues into the Kyrie, then suddenly things pick up in a really brisk Dies Irae, hence the timing ends up as a “mere” 62 minutes rather than the 64 of Böhm’s 1971 recording – but it is not an auspicious start, until the pure, warm soprano of Sena Jurinac kicks in. She can cope with the tempo and spins a long line effortlessly. The choir is first-rate but their words are not clear. Bass Frederick Guthrie – not much recorded, but perhaps familiar to many from André Cluytens’ excellent Choral Symphony on the CfP label – is entirely satisfactory and the tenor, hitherto unknown to me, is fine, but the mezzo-soprano, also a name I do not recognise, is afflicted by a tremolo.  Scherchen soon defaults into a mode which involves alternating a flaccid, ponderous manner which undermines the music’s tension in some movements with sudden, abrupt bursts of acceleration, so I cannot endorse this as an option; it is too erratic.

Jascha Horenstein, 1961 – Vox [56] mono
Wiener Singverein; Vienna Symphony Orchestra
Wilma Lipp; Elisabeth Höngen; Murray Dickie; Ludwig Weber

I like Horenstein’s pacing; his tempi are conventional but unexceptionable and the mono sound is surprisingly full and clear – better than many of that era. However, the chorus is a little ragged at times and the soloists are less than impressive: both Höngen and Weber sound past it – because they were – Dickie is constricted and Wilma Lipp, while the only youthful sounding voice here, is not ideally suited to this music; she is uncertain and wavery. Not one to detain us.

Karl Richter, 1961 – Teldec; Profil [51] stereoMünchener Bach-Chor; Münchener Bach-Orchester        
Maria Stader; Hertha Töpper; John van Kesteren; Karl-Christian Kohn

Göran Forsling enthusiastically reviewed this in 2020 as part of a “Mozart Sacred Works” set from Hänssler Classic. It is a surprisingly spritely account – hence the overall timing – and features a quartet of highly capable singers. Richter was of course most celebrated for his affinity with Bach’s music and that explains the sharp clarity of line and propulsiveness he applies to this music, which indeed often emerges as Bachian in character. The fugues are lean and tense, the vocal lines in the chorus are light and transparent and their enunciation of the Latin is neat and clipped – nice hard c’s in “cunta stricte” –  and very audible, and the underlying pulse is almost nervy – a welcome alternative to the soupy style then current; you could easily date this performance as being made twenty years later. Karl-Christian Kohn’s bass is darkly sonorous and while John van Kesteren’s tenor is a tad throaty he sings with verve and penetration; Hertha Töpper’s mezzo is pleasantly fruity and sturdy, and Maria Stader’s soprano floats delicately.

This was a surprise to me; I had not expected to encounter such an alert and “modern” recording but it certainly makes its mark as a version suffused with intense devotion. It is the polar opposite of Böhm’s second recording – yet I love both.

Herbert von Karajan, 1962 – Deutsche Grammophon  [56] stereo
Wiener Singverein; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra            
Wilma Lipp; Hilde Rössel-Majdan; Anton Dermota; Walter Berry

A certain YouTube pundit likes repeatedly to assert that Karajan had no affinity with choral music – an absurd and fatuous claim, given Karajan’s lifelong association with, and frequent recordings of, choral masterpieces such as the Verdi and Brahms Requiems, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and Choral Symphony, Haydn’s Creation and The Seasons and various Bach works; three of his recordings of Mozart’s Requiem feature here, of which this is the first.

Unfortunately, first impressions of this recording tend to confirm the panjandrum’s prejudice. Its opening is certainly very stately; I guess that was the norm then but the chorus sounds half asleep and the broad acoustic makes them even more so; they tend to enter late, just behind the already ponderous beat. Nor do I like Wilma Lipp’s swoopy, sliding, under-the-note first phrases – she hardly sounds like the singer I know. The chorus continues in somnambulist fashion throughout the Kyrie, knocking out the melismata conscientiously without much rhythmic swing. Even the Dies Irae fails to come to life, being too four-square and consonants are occluded. Matters improve with the entry of the great Walter Berry, but even he hardly sounds animated as he elides phrases and overdoes the legato. Dermota understandably sounds as if he wants to push ahead but he is not in as good voice as he was for Walter six years earlier. Hilde Rössel-Majdan is fine but Lipp continues to slide and flap and nobody sounds to be much involved.

I am a Herbie fanboy and tend to defend him when others attack, but in this case I have to say that this one is best avoided.

István Kertész, 1966 – Decca [53] stereo
Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra         
Elly Ameling; Marilyn Horne; Ugo Benelli; Tugomir Franc

Simon Thompson reviewed this in 2008 and I have long enjoyed it myself – although he has some harsh words to say about the bass’ contribution.

There is a real energy and vitality about the contribution from the choir and orchestra most frequently encountered in recordings of this seminal work – six times in this survey alone – even if there is also an element of distortion in loud choral passages – but the voices are firm and true and the four sections are well balanced. It might be old-fashioned and large-scale but Kertész’ tempi are reasonably animated and there is plenty of spring and vigour in the fast passages. The trombone solo beginning Tuba mirum is very prominent  but I rather enjoy it and I find far less to object to in Tugomir Franc’s solo than ST.  I am impressed by the weight and vigour Ugo Benelli injects into his fundamentally light, lyric tenor, while the young Marilyn Horne and Elly Ameling are captivating, the former trenchant and the latter sweet and soaring. This is a very ”operatic” reading and none the worse for that unless you are wedded to period style; it is never dutiful or boring but sweeps the listener along  with it. It is possibly the best of the faster accounts in conventional style.

Wolfgang Gönnenwein, 1966 – EMI [54] stereo
Südwestdeutscher Madrigalchor; Consortium Musicum 
Teresa Żylis-Gara; Oralia Domínguez; Peter Schreier; Franz Crass

I admire Gönnenwein in Bach, but the first thing I hear in this recording is some strange, throaty tone from the basses in this choir in their opening syllable of “Requiem” on the held D – peculiar and off-putting. However, that is a momentary flaw and otherwise they are very good, especially in the Confutatis maledictis and the Lacrimosa – although the lower voices could be more present. Gönnenwein is certainly very Bachian in the unvarying steadiness of his beat, which lends the music a kind of inexorable grandeur, even if the Dies Irae could be more released and vicious. They are joined by three of my favourite singers and one of my bêtes noires, Peter Schreier, whose narrow, nasal sound I must aways brace myself to endure – but first I revel in Franz Crass’ effulgent, black bass. I pass over Schreier’s inimitable tones – and am then rather surprised by my response to the neglected Oralia Domínguez’ contribution. I absolutely adore her in Italianate repertoire but somehow her fruity, Mediterranean timbre does not sit well either with the music or in partnership with Żylis-Gara’s pure timbre. The Recordare quartet goes well, Schreier’s constricted sound notwithstanding, but in the end, the fine choir apart, my cumulative objections result in my finding this rather workaday and unengaging.

Colin Davis, 1967 – Philips [54] stereo
John Alldis Choir; BBC Symphony Orchestra         
Helen Donath; Yvonne Minton; Ryland Davies; Gerd Nienstedt

This is a bright, alert account but in no wise deficient in majesty. I find that Davis is especially adept in embracing the extremes of tempi and mood in this work; the flow of the pulse in lyrical movements such as the Recordare and the Lacrimosa is very seductive but his attack in the Dies Irae is electric. The BBC SO woodwind are grainy and pleasingly prominent. The John Alldis choir is once again a great asset, as it is for Barenboim five years later (see below) and the team of soloists is admirable. The youthful Colin Davis had a gift for investing his performances with a special drive and glow, and in terms of both sound and delivery this remains one of the most compelling recordings despite its age. Gerd Nienstedt’s bass is lean and resonant, devoid of wobble and the under-rated Ryland Davies’ plaintive Welsh tenor timbre is ideal for this music. The rich, flickering, mezzo of Yvonne Minton is ideally paired with Helen Donath’s crystalline soprano; there are no weaknesses in this quartet.  This is in many ways as fine a version as any.

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, 1968 – EMI [54] stereo
New Philharmonia Chorus; New Philharmonia Orchestra
Edith Mathis; Grace Bumbry; George Shirley; Marius Rintzler

Michael Cookson designated this one of his “Desert Island Discs” in 2007 (review) and I agree; it has long been my favourite recording and commands my loyalty despite being 56 years old as I write. As with Davis and Kertész, there is an undefinable “spiritual” quality to this reading despite the sound being a little opaque and hissy. It is one of the largest-scale recordings in this survey, so no period niminy-pimininess here; the soloists are operatic, the chorus open-throated, the orchestra emphatic with especially dominant brass – but it is the team of soloists who put the seal on this for me:  Edith Mathis is ethereal, as she is for Böhm three years later, Grace Bumbry’s mezzo is velvety and vibrant, George Shirley’s distinctive tenor is heroic yet plangent and Marius Rintzler delivers what remains for me one of the best accounts of the Tuba mirum I know. I suppose some might object to the Requiem sounding like Aida but I find it thrilling. De Burgos makes the Dies Irae reverberate on the scale of the Grand March and the way the chorus howls “Rex” makes my hair stand on end – yet the women sound angelic in their passages in the Confutatis.

This is surely the grandest and most involving of all the “traditional” performance recordings.

Karl Böhm, 1971 – Deutsche Grammophon [64] stereo
Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra         
Edith Mathis; Julia Hamari; Wiesław Ochman; Karl Ridderbusch             

This is even more marmoreal than Böhm’s 1956 recording – in fact, by far the slowest – but is in much better stereo, analogue sound and there is something grand, majestic and even mesmerising about it, especially as the solo singers are so good. It is as far away from period practice as you can get but a great conductor, orchestra and chorus supporting as fine a quartet as could be assembled in that era mean that it stands as a monument to a vanished style which remains compelling. Everything about it is large-scale: the acoustic, the size of the forces; the Dies Irae, for example is massive, mighty and menacing – “cuncta stricte” is spat out – and who is to say that Mozart would not have liked to hear it delivered like this? I would as soon as hear Ridderbusch’s purring bass sing the “Tuba mirum” as any other in this survey, Mathis soars angelically, Ochman is penetrating and Hamari had the loveliest of mezzos on the circuit. Turning to recordings such as that by John Butt and the Dunedin Consort below is the equivalent of emerging from the sauna and plunging straight into an ice-hole.

Yes; it’s slow – but it is also moving and beautiful. After all, it’s a requiem, not a hoedown. My advice is to listen to it on YouTube and make up your own mind whether you want it as an alternative or adjunct to a more modern version – or at all. I do.

Benjamin Britten, 1971 live – BBC Legends [51] stereo
Aldeburgh Festival Chorus; English Chamber Orchestra
Heather Harper; Alfreda Hodgson; Peter Pears; John Shirley-Quirk

This is my colleague John Quinn’s favourite modern instrument recording and was pronounced “radiant with glory” by John R. Sisk in his review – so being unfamiliar with it, I approached it with reverence.

Nonetheless, a caveat must be issued regarding the fairly indistinct and cavernous live sound – by no means poor but less satisfying than studio recordings; in some muddy choral passages it is not always possible to hear the vocal lines clearly. I must also come clean and immediately signal my aversion to Peter Pears’ throttled, effortful tenor; its pulsing does not fall gratefully on my ear. The other soloists are superlative, however, and make a fine team: Shirley-Quirk is splendid in the Tuba mirum and Heather Harper and Alfreda Hodgson are tonally well-contrasted. I also like Britten’s more alert speeds, even if I find his tempo for the Rex tremendae too frantic.

I do not hear the special qualities my colleagues perceive in this performance but I can certainly hear that it is dedicated and energised, even if I would not necessarily place it above several better recorded and more consistent accounts.

Daniel Barenboim, 1972 – EMI [55] stereo
John Alldis Choir; English Chamber Orchestra     
Sheila Armstrong; Janet Baker; Nicolai Gedda; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau       

Barenboim gives us a very grand, stolid, “traditional” Requiem with a big choir and a spacious, reverberant acoustic.  That grandeur does not preclude energy and attack ; the Dies Irae is especially vibrant and the playing of the ECO is strikingly precise and sonorous, while the John Alldis Choir is excellent. I like the way the bass line in Rex tremendae is brought out, too. However, any regular readers will know that I am not a fan of either of the gentlemen soloists singing here – what on earth is Fischer-Dieskau – never endowed with much richness in his low notes – doing singing this bass role? The man never seemed to acknowledge his vocal limits and undertook all kinds of unsuitable roles, despite excelling in a precise few. His tone is grainy and Gedda, as usual, sounds nasal and constricted – although I admit to liking the way he grades the dynamics of his Liber scriptus. The ladies, however, are divine and the chorus is very agile for a relatively large group.

Simon Thompson reviewed this in 2013 and was considerably more enthused by this than I for reasons I perfectly understand, so I refer you to his review for a more positive response. For me, the comparative inadequacy of the male soloists  compromises its desirability.

Herbert von Karajan, 1975 – Deutsche Grammophon [53] stereo
Wiener Singverein; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Anna Tomowa-Sintow; Agnes Baltsa; Werner Krenn; José van Dam

This is much better than Karajan’s 1962 recording, although the opening is still somewhat stately. Lovely, spacious sound, a fine choir and a first-rate team of soloists complement the time-honoured conductor-orchestra partnership. It’s not strong on subtlety; the choir is gung-ho, rarely singing quietly – but to be fair, they do reign in the volume on “Salva me” in the Rex tremendae section, as do the women in their floating interjections in the Confutatis. Overall, however, Karajan is more concerned with conferring a majestic sweep upon the music than bringing out nuances, and the big moments such as the Dies Irae certainly make an impact. He is nonetheless surprisingly urgent in the “Domine Jesu” opening to the Offertorium – almost too fast, in fact – and “Quam olim Abrahae” goes with a real swing – nothing mushy or lethargic about it.

 Tomowa-Sintow is darker voiced and more overtly emotional in an operatic manner than some of her purer sounding soprano predecessors but that fits Karajan’s conception. His favourite bass-baritone José van Dam is one of my top three singers in this part: smooth, authoritative, beautiful of tone; you can always hear the bass line in the vocal ensembles. Werner Krenn is rather benign in Mors stupebit, almost over-doing the legato, but again the timbre is attractive  and Agnes Baltsa – another Karajan favourite – lends the mezzo part a higher profile than usual, she is so distinctive and powerful of voice. The Benedictus in particular is wonderfully sung by the quartet – and they all trill, too.

This is essentially a Big Sing – a highly enjoyable account of the Requiem performed in Old School style – and none the worse for that if you like it done that way – which I do.

Michel Corboz, 1977 – Erato [55] stereo
Coro Gulbenkian; Gulbenkian Orchestra
Elly Ameling; Barbara Scherler; Louis Devos; Roger Soyer

The opening is decidedly…funereal – OK, yes, I know, but…this is nerveless to the point of stasis, and its lethargy is intensified by the cavernous recording acoustic of the Lisbon church employed, further compromised by a fair amount of ambient noise and a long echo. That resonance takes the edge of the dramatic movements and although Corboz’ overall timing is only fifty-five minutes, his plodding, staccato tempi make it seem much longer. The choir is encouraged to sing in a kind of plonking manner – completely the opposite of Karajan’s emphasis upon legato, for example – and the strings here are sometimes out of tune.

I generally like the soloists involved, but Roger Soyer’s bass-baritone is rather too light to impart much gravitas to his contribution; I don’t think this is the role for him – the trumpet accompanying his Mors Stupebit tends to overpower him. Louis Devos’ tenor is quite throaty and hard-toned but tries to inject more drama into proceedings. The mezzo-soprano is rather a vocal non-entity; the star of the group is obviously Elly Ameling who may be heard to better advantage in Kertész’ recording above.

As you can tell, I am underwhelmed by this recording; there are more attractive options.

Neville Marriner, 1977 – Decca [55] stereo
Academy & Chorus of St Martin in the Fields;
Ileana Cotrubaș; Helen Watts; Robert Tear; John Shirley-Quirk

I have to swallow my antipathy to Robert Tear’s tenor here as everything and everyone else are so good. Recorded in the Kingsway Hall, the sound is excellent and I always have a visceral reaction to the special pathos of Ileana Cotrubas’ soprano. The choir is very well balanced and although Marriner’s speeds are conventionally on the slightly slow side, typical of that pre-HIP era, he invests the music with both drive and dignity and there is no sense of drag, especially in the Dies Irae. Shirley-Quirk is firm and hieratic – very expressive with the text – and Helen Watts is invariably admirable in the depth and weight of her vocalisation. Tear sings with commitment and passion even if the bleat in his voice irks me and he makes such a strange, howling sound at the beginning of the Recordare quartet – a sort of swallowed hoot. For me, his contribution sadly compromises the virtues of this otherwise wholly enjoyable account and as such it cannot be a first choice, good as it is.

Carlo Maria Giulini, 1979 – EMI [55] stereo
Philharmonia Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra   
Helen Donath; Christa Ludwig; Robert Tear; Robert Lloyd

Helen Donath here repeats the fine performance she gave for Davis twelve years earlier, being still in excellent voice, Christa Ludwig is a star import and Robert Lloyd’s sonorous bass is heard for the first time, as he would sing this again for Marriner in his 1990 recording; he is superb. Unfortunately, two years after the first Marriner recording, Robert Tear reappears here to put a damper on this otherwise fine account. John Quinn’s review is a fair and balanced assessment and I refer you to it rather than re-hash his findings; my only demurral is that, although he rightly mentions Tear’s faults, he is still kinder about his contribution than I am prepared to be, as despite being better than in that earlier recording, he once again constitutes the main reason why I would not recommend it over versions with four equally good soloists. However, I must add that I do find Giulini especially animated in the fugal passages; they are a bit soft-edged, in terms of both performance and sound and in fact I find his approach overall rather subdued. There are better options.

Helmuth Rilling, 1979 – CBS [53] stereo
Gächinger Kantorei; Bach-Collegium Stuttgart    
Arleen Augér; Carolyn Watkinson; Siegfried Jerusalem; Siegmund Nimsgern

The opening is very slow and portentous, Böhm-style and the clarity of the recording allows us to hear the individual choral lines and the text articulated cleanly. The fugues are meticulously executed but are grand and powerful; the choir – founded by Rilling – is really one of the best I have heard. I venture rather harshly to suggest that Arleen Augér’s sadly premature death leads some to over-praise her as compensation; I mean no disrespect – she was a fine artist – but her tentative and rather scratchy opening phrases do not indicate that she was in finest voice for this recording; there are many more sopranos whose voices are better suited to Mozart’s soaring lines (but see below for much better performances by her). Nor do I find Nimsgern’s grainy, break-ridden bass-baritone especially well-suited to the part; he tends to groan in the lower regions – but he also sings with feeling. The young Siegfried Jerusalem is really impressive in the tenor part. Carolyn Watkinson makes a very positive contribution; I have always loved her rich voice and thought her under-rated. In other words, there is much about this recording that I really enjoy even if it is a bit of a mixed bag and I do not think it is quite among the best.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, 1982 – Teldec [49] digital, period
Vienna State Opera Chorus; Concentus Musicus Wien    
Rachel Yakar; Ortrun Wenkel; Kurt Equiluz; Robert Holl             

This is the first “period informed” recording but also still in modern pitch – the only one not played a semitone down. Its style is peculiar and typically quirky – first that “squeeze-box” sound in a perky beat, then blaring brass 36 seconds in which jolts the listener alarmingly, followed by hard-sticked timpani battering out the beat. The orchestra and choir are precise and homogeneous, playing and singing in a staccato manner which is quite arresting but for me there is a lack of weight in the choral sound in the Dies Irae and Lacrimosa – or maybe just a lack of numbers – and I am not sure what effect Harnoncourt had in mind when he has them clip the cries of “Rex!” at the beginning of the movement; it sounds for all the world as if they are calling a dog in the park rather than apostrophising the Almighty. There are a few more oddities of that kind but on the whole Harnoncourt’s tempi, while brisk, do not sound rushed, just energetic.

Rachel Yakar is a fine soloist, shimmering and leaner of tone than the more “operatic” type of sopranos we are used to hearing. Bass Robert Holl is satisfactory but not especially striking or exciting; he is a bit woolly and “yawning” in his vocal production. Tenor Kurt Equiluz sounds somewhat startled, tremulous and unsteady and there isn’t much body to his light, white tone; the contrast between his weedy sound and Ortrun Wenkel’s meaty, hooty contralto when she takes over from him in the Tuba Mirum is faintly comical. Some of the most beautiful ensembles are to my ears rather prosaic; that is especially true of the sublime Benedictus, which lacks a sense of transcendence or serenity.

The combination of the scattered idiosyncrasies without much obvious justification and the relative inadequacy of two of the soloists here tends to militate against my being able to endorse this, although it is undoubtedly interesting and innovative.

Peter Schreier, 1983 – Philips [53]
Leipzig Radio Chorus; Staatskapelle Dresden       
Margaret Price; Trudeliese Schmidt; Francisco Araiza; Theo Adam

I am happier with Peter Schreier on the podium than as a soloist and he is directing a traditional style performance with a very distinguished body of performers, especially with regard to the choir, orchestra and soprano; Margaret Price was always to be counted upon to soar angelically. Unfortunately Francisco Araiza is another of those tenors on my “Constricted List”, so hardly an improvement upon Schreier himself; you may hear how hard and squeezed is his sound. Theo Adam is assertive and authoritative but you can hear that he is just embarking on the “Mr Wobble” stage of his distinguished career. Trudeliese Schmidt is OK but also inclined to unsteadiness; in other words none of Maragaret Price’s soloist colleagues is on her level, so why should you bother with this when there are so many alternative recordings with a superior team? Nuff said.

Christopher Hogwood; 1984 – L’Oiseau-lyre [43] digital, period
Westminster Cathedral Boys Choir; Academy of Ancient Music; English Baroque Soloists             
Emma Kirkby; Carolyn Watkinson; Anthony Rolfe Johnson; David Thomas

I confess that I have never been a Hogwood fan but am happy to admit that I find this recording really refreshing after so many almost indistinguishable, production line, template versions; this is original, individual and arresting. It is the grandaddy of period performances, played at lower baroque pitch and overall the fastest recording here –  yet the opening is surprisingly slow and weighty. The next surprise is the entrance of the boys’ choir which actually sounds lovely, paradoxically both angelic and properly boyish, their voices clearly pre-adolescent, slightly hooty, yet with that unmistakably youthful male sound which the inclusion of girls inevitably dilutes. The adult choir is almost violent in its assault upon the text in Confutatis maledictis, contrasting vividly with the boys’ serene commentary.

Emma Kirkby sings beautifully, wholly in tune, with minimal vibrato but a kind of directness and sincerity which is most appealing. David Thomas is not the most trenchant of bass solos – his low notes are lacking – but he sings sincerely and expressively. Tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson is just great – sweet, urgent, supplicatory – and I have already expressed my admiration for Carolyn Watkinson’s singing in my review of the Rilling recording. There is no feeling of undue haste in Hogwood’s direction here because the sense of communication with the listener is so immediate; the sheer drama of the liturgy emerges so directly.

This was by far the greatest surprise of this survey and takes its place as the most compelling of period versions.

Daniel Barenboim, 1986 – EMI [56] digital

Chœur et Orchestre de Paris      
Kathleen Battle; Ann Murray; David Rendall; Matti Salminen

Barenboim is one of those conductors who returns to re-record seminal works and one sometimes wonders why. So here he is again on EMI fourteen years after his first foray – but to what purpose, I am unsure, as it seems unchanged interpretatively. Of course, the singers are different and there is a case for arguing that the new team here, especially with regard to the two men, is superior to their earlier counterparts – apart from the replacement of Janet Baker by Ann Murray. Matti Salminen’s distinctive, resonant but nasal bass is an improvement over DFD, and I have always enjoyed David Rendall’s equally distinctive tenor; he is individual in sound in a way similar to George Shirley is for de Burgos. Kathleen Battle has a relatively small but pure and silvery soprano and Ann Murray is actually just fine, too, even if she is not Janet Baker. However, coming straight from listening to the revelatory Hogwood account, this seems to me to be very stolid and old-fashioned – and in fact the choir seems further set back and more indistinct than in 1972 so consonants are lost. They are not bad, but not as sharp and impactful as the John Alldis Choir – nor is the Parisian orchestra as striking as the ECO.

Overall, this performance here is a tad lethargic and reacquaintance has not enhanced my appreciation of it for the reasons adumbrated above, especially in the context of the new vigour HIP awareness imparted to performers and audiences alike.

Robert Shaw, 1986 – Telarc [52] digital
Atlanta Symphony Chorus; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra 
Arleen Augér; Delores Ziegler; Jerry Hadley; Tom Krause

This is a very soft-grained performance; the brass makes hardly any impact, the chorus is relaxed, and it all sounds remote – which is odd coming from a conductor renowned for his choral training expertise. Nobody sounds much engaged; there is absolutely no attack on either the Kyrie or the Dies Irae, and the Rex tremendae is hardly much more animated; in sum, this is a total damp squib. Arleen Augér delivers another mild, correct performance, although Delores Ziegler is excellent and Tom Krause likewise much more than competent – all of which would demote this to being yet another pleasant, unremarkable version were it not for the predictably fine contribution from the great Jerry Hadley demonstrating ideal tenor vocalisation, even throughout its range and heroic of tone – but his presence is hardly enough to redeem this snoozefest and he also appears in Bernstein’s recording below. So moving on….

John Eliot Gardiner, 1987 – Philips [49] digital, period
Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists         
Barbara Bonney; Anne Sofie von Otter; Hans Peter Blochwitz; Willard White

I never know quite what to expect when encountering a JEG recording; he excels in some things and absolutely bombs in others; thankfully, this one of the former. The mournful lower pitch evident right from the start signals a “period-aware” performance and after enduring Robert Shaw’s somnolent account, the snap and engagement of the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists are most welcome.  Certain moments, such as the almost raucous conclusion to the Kyrie and the start of the Dies Irae, are thrilling – and my acid test of the consonants in “cunta stricte” is triumphantly passed. The brass blare savagely and timpani are prominent. I like the way Gardiner presses the tempo forward in passage such as “Quam olim Abrahae” but wish a bit more of that sense of urgency had been infused into his soloists.

Barbara Bonney is a serene, beautiful, if rather timorous, soprano soloist. Willard White’s bass is imposing but somewhat grainy, hollow and coarse and does not blend well with his co-singers; however, he is far from bland. Hans Peter Blochwitz is very musical but pale and polite compared with tenors who have more tonal heft and Anne Sofie von Otter is also on the restrained, over-refined side; as a quartet, their zeal does not quite equal that of the choir and orchestra – but the Benedictus is delightful and perhaps I am being over-finicky; this is still a most engaging account, much more interesting than many a recording here, especially with regard to the spirited contributions of the choir and orchestra and it is certainly one of the best period versions.

Herbert von Karajan, 1987 – Deutsche Grammophon [53] digital
Wiener Singverein; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Anna Tomowa-Sintow; Helga Müller-Molinari; Vinson Cole; Paata Burchuladze

It is quite a wrench to turn from Gardiner’s forward-looking version to Karajan’s third and last studio recording, by this time essentially anachronistic in its stolidity, yet still very impressive in its grand manner – how could it be otherwise with such forces? It sounds slow but at 53 minutes is not actually particularly so.

Anna Tomowa-Sintow was a fine soprano soloist for Karajan in 1976 and returns to deliver much the same admirable performance  but now tends to slur into notes more overtly by this stage of her career. Similarly, Vinson Cole seems incapable of launching a phrase or note cleanly without sliding and I suspect that the engineers helped his small tenor. Burchuladze sounds oddly Slavonic and grainy and his soft singing is insufficiently supported, but he is at times quite imposing. The mezzo-soprano was and is something of an unknown quantity as I don’t think she recorded anything much; she has a nice tone but also a touch of tremolo. In brief, yet again the quartet of soloists is the Achilles’ heel here when compared with the best. Key points such as the Benedictus are compromised by that lazy slurring habit but it is such an exquisite number it always makes its mark when sung by voices of quality. The engineering is excellent – Karajan always cared about balances and does not seem to have tinkered too much with this one, although the choir’s diction is insufficiently distinct. This is by no means bad but I would turn first to the 1976 recording to hear Karajan at his best in this music.

Leonard Bernstein, 1989 Deutsche Grammophon [59] digital
Bavarian Radio Symphony Chorus & Orchestra   
Marie McLaughlin; Maria Ewing; Jerry Hadley; Cornelius Hauptmann

Bernstein’s recording is an anomaly for its era, being very slow and Romantic, whereas contemporary conductors such as Karajan and Marriner had already adopted a pacier beat. His manner is decidedly retro, sui generis and a return to the Böhm super-reverential mode, hence the opening is mighty, massive, majestic, magisterial, monolithic – I have run out of words beginning with m so will suggest that some commentators would instead characterise it as “too damn slow”. There is no doubt that the sung semiquavers of the Kyrie lumber but of course, being Bernstein, he galvanises his performers for the Dies Irae and the Confutatis. Having said all that, there might be times when you wish that Bernstein would just get on with it and stop moulding very phrase so lovingly; the snail’s pace and gaps between phrases in the Lacrimosa verge on the absurd – but then again, the acceleration for Domine Jesu Christe is electric and in the Hostias “Quam olim Abrahae” rattles along rousingly. If you are intrigued, try this first on YouTube to test the waters.

The solo quartet is interesting. It is slightly surprising to see light lyric soprano Marie McLaughlin here but she was always a poised, aristocratic singer and she sings beautifully, with plenty of penetration. Bass Cornelius Hauptmann is also light of timbre with rather more baritone in his vocal make-up than many who sing this part but he is very expressive. Jerry Hadley lightens his effulgent tenor, too, without sounding “shut off” – you can always hear his line in the ensembles. The late Maria Ewing was in the “lyric mezzo-soprano” stage of her career, with plenty of heft at the bottom of her voice but still delicate; it seems that Bernstein very deliberately assembled a team whose affect was one of great pathos and emotion without being too small to compete with the big forces of the BRSO at their back.

Reactions to this will be very personal but I think any lover of this work will want to hear it, because boring or conventional, it ain’t.

Neville Marriner, 1990 – Philips [50]
Academy & Chorus of St Martin in the Fields;
Sylvia McNair, Carolyn Watkinson, Francisco Araiza, Robert Lloyd

In his second studio recording, thirteen years after the first, Neville Marriner, again with the excellent ASMF forces, has speeded up by five minutes, reflecting the change in performance practice and the extra urgency makes his second outing even more compelling. This has all Marriner’s best qualities; alert, sprung rhythms and flawless ensemble; a mysterious, questing atmosphere hangs over the quiet passages. However, an observation quite often made of Marriner’s recordings is that he has good taste in everything without always stirring the blood and the big moments here are somewhat understated and less imposing.

Sylvia McNair is always to be numbered among the best light lyric sopranos and we have already heard Carolyn Watkinson twice for Rilling and Hogwood, so she, too, is a known quantity of excellence, as was Robert Lloyd for Giulini and is so again here, but Marriner is once more saddled with a constricted tenor, this time Francisco Araiza rather than Robert Tear, and the entry of his strange, throttled voice after Loyd’s magnificent Tuba mirum solo brings us down to earth with a bump, marring the ensemble.

If you like Araiza more than I, this is another highly recommendable account but perhaps misses the last ounce of abandon which marks the very best.

Georg Solti, 1991 live – Decca [57] digital
Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra         
Arleen Augér; Cecilia Bartoli; Vinson Cole; René Pape

Reacquaintance with this live recording in the context of listening to so many others has reminded me why it has for many years been my go-to version alongside de Burgos, but my enthusiasm for it has slightly cooled. Marking the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death, it is a live recording in St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, so we begin with a peal of bells, and prayers for Mozart are included in four tracks, which is rather touching. This means we have atmospheric sound, but the reverberance of the venue also somewhat blurs the articulation of the text and the runs by the Vienna State Opera Chorus, who, In combination with the VPO form the partnership most often encountered in recordings of the Requiem –  and of course one of the most impressive.

This is by far the best of Arleen Augér’s three recordings; she is in much better voice than for either of the preceding two and radiates joy. I think Vinson Cole sounds better here than he did for Karajan, too, even if he rather overdoes his use of falsetto; perhaps the acoustic helped both singers. The young René Pape is lean-voiced and authoritative and Cecilia Bartoli, although a tad warbly, is neatly contrasted with Augér.  As you might expect, Solti is driven and urgent in the Confutatis but gives his singers space in the lyrical passages – after all, he was a consummate conductor of opera. The Benedictus, the most operatic movement, is well sung, but Solti presses the tempo too hard and Cole’s tenor too often sounds more like a mezzo-soprano, especially when compared with tenors like Jerry Hadley.

The distancing effect of the acoustic robs the performance of some immediacy compared with studio recordings, but there is definitely a sense of occasion about this which makes it stands apart, even if it is not my first choice.

Gary Bertini, live 1991 – Phoenix [52] digital
Kölner Rundfunk Chor und Sinfonie Orchester    
Krisztina Laki; Doris Soffel; Robert Swensen; Thomas Quasthoff

Gary Bertini is often cited as a conductor whose recordings fall into the collector’s favourite category of “unjustly neglected” – not that there are that many beyond his Mahler cycle for EMI with the same orchestra as here.

The sound here is superb, especially for a live recording, really clear, rich and well-balanced and both choir and orchestra are as good as any. The choral singing is energised and alert with ample attack and the choir sounds sizeable. The soloists are a revelation; every one is essentially perfect. I am especially impressed by the two male singers: Thomas Quasthoff, perhaps the best known singer here, is rich, steady and expressive, his voice wonderfully dark-hued and shaded, also light and free when that is required. Tenor Robert Swensen is a full-voiced, heroic, yet subtle. The ladies are as impressive: Hungarian soprano Krisztina Laki was under-recorded in the standard repertoire but exhibits a sumptuous, rounded voice while Doris Soffel was a versatile and ubiquitous coloratura mezzo-soprano who also perhaps never quite got the exposure she merited but is ideal here. Their Benedictus is exemplary – and Bertini des not let it drag. In fact, his direction is urgent and emphatic, bringing out all the drama in this work. A real sense of dedication and occasion pervades this recording; it must have been wholly absorbing to be in the audience.

This was the other complete surprise to emerge from this survey, alongside the Hogwood recording -and in the other category of a modern performance using traditional forces and instruments. It confirms the word among cognoscenti that the Romanian-born Israeli Bertini was one of the most undervalued of great conductors.

Sir Colin Davis, 1991 – RCA Victor Red Seal [54] digital
Chor und Symphonieorchester Des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Angela Maria Blasi · Marjana Lipovsek · Uwe Heilmann · Jan-Hendrik Rootering

This is Colin Davis’ second recording, almost a quarter of a century on from the first. It soon becomes apparent that the orchestral and choral work is impressively clean in the divisions and powerful at climaxes. My colleague Jonathan Woolf was generally positive about this (review), correctly characterising it as grander than the earlier recording, while maintaining a preference for that, and also rightly pointing that the soprano has a fundamentally pretty and pleasing voice but also a tendency to approach notes under the mark. The quartet of soloists is in fact really very good but not stellar in the way of many recordings pre the mid-80s, by which time the age of great singers was demonstrably on the wane. Uwe Heilmann has one of those small, light, piercing Germanic tenors often encountered, whereas I prefer a voice of greater substance like that of Jerry Hadley or Robert Swensen. Marjana Lipovsek and Jan-Hendrik Rootering are both commendably sturdy without being especially distinctive – and no one attempts a trill.

Davis achieves a nice balance between reverence and drama and while the performance is grand it is not at risk of becoming overblown as per Bernstein. Nor is there yet too much of the “Davis grunt” which became increasingly prevalent as he aged. Strangely, though, given Davis’ deserved reputation for vitality in his conducting, the “Quam olim Abrahae” passages are rather stolid and lacklustre.

In brief this is a fine “middle-of-the-road” performance without being exactly electrifying – but no one would be disappointed by it, either.

Roger Norrington, 1992 – EMI [51] digital, period            
Schütz Choir of London; London Classical Players
Nancy Argenta; Catherine Robbin; John Mark Ainsley; Alastair Miles

I trust that I can refute any accusation that I am resistant to HIP-informed recordings, witnessed by my advocacy of Hogwood’s, Gardiner’s and Koch’s accounts; what I am opposed to is poor, doctrinaire adherence to a spurious “authenticity” to a point at which it becomes unmusical and I almost invariably find Roger Norrington’s work culpable in that regard. Here, I regret to say, I part company with my colleague Terry Barfoot whose review provides an alternative point of view and which I reference in the interests of critical impartiality.

Here is my take on this, however. It sets off in typically jaunty, small-scale fashion with that squeeze-box sound I do not relish and a choir so small that you hear individual voices. Next, Nancy Argenta enters, singing in a damped-down “choirboy” style and while I like the timpani to be pronounced, they are here rather crude, as are the brass. The runs are despatched by the choir in efficient fashion; there is a constant sense of “getting on with it” – or rather “over with” – and there isn’t much to engage the ear or heart here. The Tuba mirum is decidedly perfunctory; the trombone accompaniment has the feeling of a brass band in the park and Alastair Miles is rushed off his tonsils. John Mark Ainsley grabs the baton and sets off before chucking it to Catherine Robbin who sounds uncomfortable. All the singers have been instructed to apply minimal vibrato, of course and as a result sound somewhat whining and winded.

Coming to this as I did from Gary Bertini’s sublime account rendered it almost laughably cursory. I don’t like it and don’t see why anyone else would, given the options.

William Christie, 1995 Erato [50] digital, period
Les Arts Florissants
Anna Maria Panzarella; Nathalie Stutzmann; Christoph Prégardien; Nathan Berg

This is as nasty as Norrington’s and a waste of a couple of good singers. The fortissimo blare forty-two seconds in gives due warning; it is crude and unmusical. I have made it perfectly clear that I am in no wise anti-period – just anti bad period performance. This is alternately plodding and joyless – Christie’s Lacrimosa is especially guilty of that – then and scampering and rushed. Effects seem applied and lacking subtlety.

Nathan Berg sings impressively and Nathalie Stutzmann’s distinctive contralto is a pleasure but their velvety tones need more time and space to make a proper impact. The smaller, tweetier voices of the soprano – a baroque singer unknown to me – and the tremulous tenor Christophe Prégardien are mismatched with their other two partners, so the ensembles are unbalanced and Christie, like Norrington, is invariably in a hurry, so it all comes over as small-scale and inconsequential. It never sounds to me as if this music actually means anything to the conductor.

This is not a recording to bother with; you can do so much better, whether you want authentic style or not.

Claudio Abbado, 1999 live – Deutsche Grammophon [49] digital
Swedish Radio Choir; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra        
Karita Mattila; Sara Mingardo; Michael Schade; Bryn Terfel

According to the notes, Abbado uses here the usual Süssmayr edition, with “modifications by Franz Beyer and Robert Levin.” The very reverberant acoustic of this live recording from the Salzburg Festival might be off-putting for some listeners but it certainly lends an ecclesiastical ambience, even if it takes the edge off the articulation. Abbado is well into his historically aware period by this time and his tempi are brisk – hence the overall timing. He has a great choir and orchestra at his disposal and they do his bidding expertly. Furthermore, he has an impressive team of soloists. The trombone heralding the young Bryn Terfel’s Tuba mirum is wonderfully resonant and he is in best, most commanding, voice. It is nice to see the under-rated Sara Mingardo in such exalted company; Michael Schade’s tenor is relatively light but pleasing and Karita Mattila floats a note beguilingly.

John Quinn reviewed the Blu-ray version of this here and he provides some comments regarding the edition employed. We pretty much agree, especially about the quality of the performers. It is only by comparison with somewhat more individual accounts that I have any reservations; this is not the most exciting performance I have ever heard but everything about it pleases and it is certainly not stodgy.

Christoph Spering, 2001 – Opus 111 [50] digital, period
Chorus Musicus; Das Neue Orchester
Iride Martinez; Monica Groop; Steve Davislim; Kwangchul Youn

Although Spering was performing this according to the lights of historical awareness, that was nearly a quarter of a century ago and it now sounds very cumbersome and self-aware in parts, such that my admiration for it has waned to the point of dislike. The opening is oddly lugubrious even though his speeds are generally brisk; it smacks of what first became a HIP cliché when the movement was getting going: very, very fast then very, very slow, until eventually its practitioners settled down and stopped trying to sound “different” via unmusical means. By five minutes into this dirge, even though the choir is good, I am bored and waiting for the music to start and it takes until 6:22 for a similarly lethargic Kyrie to start just as I am hoping that Spering will seize the opportunity to up the pace – but no – and the runs are absurdly catatonic.

Sure enough, the old trick is employed for the Dies Irae which goes off like a rocket but has little impact. All of this is a pity, because Kwangchul Youn is impressive in Tuba mirum and his co-singers are mostly equally admirable – except they have to deal with a silly, perky “pom-pom” beat which robs the music of dignity. The orchestral playing, too, is very small-scale and chamber-like; I think it goes too far in minimising its scale. There is little point my itemising each occasion of this; you get the picture.

I think I was seduced by its novelty when this recording first appeared but am now distinctly disenchanted.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, 2003 –  Deutsche Harmonia Mundi [48] digital, period
Arnold Schoenberg Chor; Concentus Musicus Wien
Christine Schäfer; Bernarda Fink; Kurt Streit; Gerald Finley

Twenty-one years after his pioneering version comes Harnoncourt’s second recording with the same – his – orchestra and a fine set of soloists. Once again, in a manner which often surprises me in period recordings, the opening is very deliberate and to my ears he commits the same error of taste by having the brass blare not just fortissimo but really crudely – I don’t see how that is consistent with a solemn atmosphere. It is but a passing moment but he does so love to thwack downbeats to shock the listener in not so pleasant a manner. A few minutes into this recording and for me the irritations at Harnoncourt’s eccentricities – extended pauses, thumping, blaring, sudden diminuendos as per 1:03 in the Dies Irae then a blasting fortissimo – are beginning to mount up. The low strings in the Confutatis sound for all the world like a tribal war dance – certainly unusual – but appropriate?

Regarding the soloists, Christine Schäfer is fine but somewhat cloudy of timbre in comparison with other really translucent sopranos; then the Kyrie lumbers like Spering’s. Gerald Finley is a singer I hugely admire, possessed of an unfailingly beautiful voice, but he is a true baritone and just does not have the sufficiently resonant low G-flat and A required. Kurt Streit has a full, vibrant tenor but his vibrato is rather wide and pronounced; the singer best-suited to her role here is Bernarda Fink.

There is little point my moaning about not much enjoying the whining string tone, too, when that is often so much part of authentic performance but there it is. In a strange way, Harnoncourt’s performance is just as deliberately and overtly emotional as Bernstein’s hyper-Romantic account; they are kindred but different kinds of extremes owing to their chosen idiom. This is not the recording I would turn to when I want to hear the Requiem performed in period style. You may feel differently; if you do not know it, sample it on YouTube and decide for yourself. To my mind, Hogwood and Gardiner do all this better.

Teodor Currentzis, 2010 – Alpha [47] digital, period
The New Siberian Singers; MusicaAeterna
Simone Kermes; Stephanie Houtzeel; Markus Brutscher; Arnaud Richard

My esteemed colleague Robert Hugill reviewed this back in 2011 and indeed declared his intention of returning to it, but issued a couple of implicit caveats for the more traditionally minded regarding its make-up and performance style, so I quote liberally some excerpts from his thorough review: “Both orchestra and chorus number around 30 people… this is not a performance for anyone who wants a luxurious string tone… Currentzis’s speeds are distinctly brisk…[w]ith vibrato kept to a minimum on all sides… there are early music bulges in the choral line… What may disturb purists more is the way he gets the singers to accent notes, such as the beginnings of phrases in the Introit and Kyrie. At various times the basses slap their strings in emphasis and at one point bells – of the variety used in church services – occur… both [tenor Markus Brutscher] and Kermes at times rather overdo the squeezing of the voice across the vocal line… This will not be a Mozart Requiem for everyone.”

He never wrote a truer word than in that last statement. Put all those detailed and perceptive observations together and you will see that personal taste must play a crucial role in deciding whether this recording is for you. For example, I am sometimes a great Currentzis fan and advocate – but personally find this to be horrible. I have also much enjoyed Simone Kermes in several things in which Currentzis has conducted her, but emphatically not in their recordings of complete Mozart operas and she is clearly following his same instructions regarding her vocal style here, swelling the note and being vibrato-free.

In short, for me all this emerges as a kind of grotesque parody of baroque style. You may think different and agree with RH, so please sample it for yourself on YouTube.

Mariss Jansons, live 2011 – RCO [48]digitalNetherlands Radio Choir; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Genia Kühmeier; Bernarda Fink; Mark Padmore; Gerald Finley

This is the conventional Süssmayr completion on modern instruments. Simon Thompson reviewed this admiringly – and although he and I are hardly of one mind regarding  various recordings by Karajan, Barenboim and Schreier, we certainly agree that “You’d have to be the worst kind of authenticist not to feel a twitch of excitement at the prospect of hearing the Requiem performed by a set of musicians like this one” and I did indeed turn with some relief from Harnoncourt to this. Of course it is modern but it is so in every sense, in that it takes cognisance of period practice, hence its clean lines, crisp articulation, brisk, spritely tempi and avoidance of Romantic gestures – and of course it enjoys superb live, digital sound. The choir is one of the very best, the orchestra flawless, producing absolutely lovely, deep, rich tone. The cast of soloists features at least three great singers – although I am not a fan of Mark Padmore’s pale voice, as his vibrato borders on a bleat and his basic tonal production is throaty and constricted, sounding more like an ageing mezzo-soprano than a true tenor. Genia Kühmeier was a fine soloist in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony conducted by Gergiev and excels again here; I have already singled out Bernarda Fink as the best singer in Harnoncourt’s second recording; Gerald Finely sounds richer and darker, here, too, more able to resonate those low notes and I rather enjoy his ornamentation in a rousing Tuba mirum, even if I am not sure about its suitability for repeated listening or whence the authority for it derives – but it’s a passing novelty.

This is doubtless one of the very best recordings of more recent years and a testament to the late Mariss Jansons’ sensitivity and versatility – I just wish a more congenial tenor had been employed, as his forced wobble spoils the ensemble in such divine passages as the Benedictus and that really compromises what would otherwise have been a perfect account. (The more I think about that, the more irked I feel…)

John Butt, 2013 – Linn [47] digital, period Dunedin Consort
Joanne Lunn; Rowan Hellier; Thomas Hobbs; Matthew Brook

The first recording to use David Black’s new critical edition of the Süssmayr version, it attempts to reconstruct the performing forces at the first performances in Vienna in 1791 and 1793. It won the 2014 Gramophone Award for Best Choral Recording and John Sheppard reviewed it here, calling it “essential”. I refer you to his excellent review for more detail. It certainly presents an interesting and individual account but call me old-fashioned, possums, I cannot hear the opening plonked out as it is here and those whining gut strings without thinking of a squeeze-box or hurdy-gurdy.

To be fair to JS, as much as he evidently enjoyed this, he is at pains to clarify that he “would not want to be without earlier classic performances using larger or differently constituted forces”. I completely understand his stance, but for me, there is something too home-grown and folksy about this way of performing the Requiem, especially when individual voices in the chorus are discernible as they are so few and the basset horn takes on the prominent role and style of an instrument you are more likely to hear in klezmer music, but passages such as the Dies Irae are certainly  delivered with verve and commitment. Perhaps it would be too much to expect the soloists to match some of the receding starry quartets, but they are pretty weedy: the bass is a groaner and the tenor more of a light and white-voiced comprimario; the ladies are better.

Sample this on YouTube and make up your own mind. I care less for it than my fellow-reviewer but certainly concede its virtues.

Masaaki Suzuki, 2013 – BIS [46] digital, period
Bach Collegium Japan
Requiem: Tuba mirum (alternative version) [2:51]
Carolyn Sampson; Marianne Beate Kielland; Makoto Sakurada; Christian Immler
(completion by Masato Suzuki)

I refer you to my colleague John Quinn’s review for details regarding the edition employed here and his very thorough critique of the performance, with which I almost completely agree – so there is little point in my recycling his views. I share his reservations about some of Suzuki’s choice of speeds – he occasionally sounds rushed, as in the Recordare – and I agree that Gardiner’s recording is marginally superior, even if I do not find his soloists to be perfect and I like the additional quality of Suzuki’s soloists here, especially his stronger-voiced tenor and a bass more conventionally mellifluous than Gardiner’s rough Willard White. The Benedictus is again slightly hard-pressed but beautifully sung by a homogeneous quartet. The extra “Amen” in the Lacrimosa is a novelty but hardly a major criterion to affect preference.

This is a period performance to give much pleasure and stand in complete contrast to the contemporaneous modern account from Jansons – yet both are equally valid.

René Jacobs, 2017 – harmonia mundi [46] digital, period
RIAS Kammerchor; Freiburger Barockorchester
Sophie Karthäuser; Marie-Claude Chappuis; Maximilian Schmitt; Johannes Weiser
(completed by Süssmayr, revised 2016 by Pierre-Henri Dutron)

I refer you to the review by Simon Thompson for details of the… peculiarities…idiosyncrasies? of this edition; as he says this is perhaps an issue more for the “Mozart-Requiem-Nut”! I don’t much care for the way Jacobs has his orchestra “plonk out” orchestral rhythms, but the attack and enthusiasm of the closely recorded RIAS Kammerchor are welcome, even if occasionally I find that the balance favours them too much over the more recessed orchestra. The switch from full choir to soloists at the end of the Dies Irae takes the listener by surprise but isn’t objectionable.

However, if you have made it this far reading this survey, you are probably by now fed up with my moaning about inadequate tenors – but here’s another one: bleaty and whining; the soprano is hardly wobble-free either and the bass is ordinary compared with distinguished predecessors. It is so often the case with die-hard period practitioners that they skimp on the quality of solo voices – or are just desperate to avoid any thing “quasi-operatic” so go to the other, wrong extreme. René Jacobs has long been among those conductors who do so – a sin all the more egregious coming from a conductor who was formerly a solo singer. That rules this out for me, regardless of its attractions, especially as there are several other authentic recordings which field a much better team

Felix Koch, 2019 – Rondeau [46] digital, periodGutenberg-Kammerchor; Neumeyer Consort
Chisa Tanigaki; Rebekka Stolz; Fabian Kelly; Christian Wagner

Rather than repeat myself, I refer you to my February 2023 review of this issue which was in general very favourable and made it a “Recommended” recording, especially as its special claim to interest is its new completion of the Amen fugue in the Lacrimosa  – although I am now somewhat better versed in the qualities of the extant period recordings and would not place it above Hogwood’s, as I marginally prefer the latter’s soloists and even more individuality.

This is one of those rarer surveys in which I find myself spoilt for choice, in that – with just a couple of exceptions –  you could stick a pin at random into the list of recordings above and mostly come up with a satisfying performance – but that is because apart from the small range of timings between the more modern versions, ranging between three-quarters of an hour to fifty minutes, and the slightly more sedate norm of pre-1990 recordings, taking around 55 minutes , many accounts are really very similar – not exactly bland but somewhat unvarying; this is why it takes something special for one to emerge as a clear winner. There is a whole crop of recordings from the 1960s among which I can barely differentiate a “best” version: Richter, Kertész, Davis and de Burgos all command my loyalty and respect. Böhm’s 1971 and Bernstein’s recordings are outliers or wild cards, and appreciation of them will depend on whether you relish their distended tempi; Karajan in 1975 is similarly grandiose  and they all have great soloists. More recent successes include the second Davis recording, Abbado and, above all, Bertini. Of the dozen period performances here, however, I clearly favour Hogwood’s above all; sample it on YouTube and see for yourself.

I have accordingly created these four distinct categories for recommendations, according to taste – and I want them all.

Ultra-Romantic, slow: Bernstein 1989
Moderate traditional: de Burgos 1968*
Modern instruments and style; Bertini 1991
Period: Hogwood 1984
* First choice

Ralph Moore