While this concert’s marketing was focused on Mozart’s Requiem, it was Haydn in the first half that made the greater impact, in the form of an ecstatically virtuosic performance of his Cello Concerto no. 1 with soloist Alban Gerhardt. Passagework was everywhere immaculately tuned and played with perfect dexterity, Gerhardt’s fingers dancing up and down the instrument with tremendous velocity. Gerhardt’s cello has a beautifully turned, warm sound that projects beautifully through the hall. The sustained opening note of the second movement was spun out and held in velvety suspension for the audience to examine, somehow seeming more audible than the orchestra at their loudest. The last movement went at a whirling pace but Gerhardt was more than equal to the technical demands, tossing the whole thing off with great panache. The programme didn’t note whose cadenzas were played but they were expertly rendered, replete with scales and ornamental figures and carrying the cellist into harmonic territory far from Haydn. The interplay between soloist and orchestra was delightfully done – it’s hard to imagine a better presentation of this work.

Alban Gerhardt
Alban Gerhardt

Working from the autograph manuscript, musicologist Robert Levin has made his own completion of Mozart’s Requiem, and it was this version that was opted for here. Levin argues that much of what Franz Xaver Süssmayr (the first to complete this piece) took credit for was actually based on lost sketches or Mozart’s instructions, given that Süssmayr was a relatively uninspired composer. Levin’s completion aims to maintain the elements he believes are authentic Mozart while replacing Süssmayr’s contributions. The orchestration is lighter and less clumsy than the more familiar version. After the Lacrimosa, Levin has inserted a beautiful “Amen” fugue of his own composition but based on a Mozart sketch. There are other noticeable changes in the Benedictus. One the whole, Levin’s seems a more convincing completion that Süssmayr’s, with moments that hark back to Mozart’s great Mass in C minor.

Conductor Bernard Labadie transformed the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra into a chamber-sized, period instrument-influenced ensemble for this performance. But what the great period instrument ensembles have, but this orchestra does not (at least on this occasion), is a wide, almost exaggerated, sense of dynamic contrast. The concert opened with Haydn’s Symphony no. 26, a piece typical of the composer’s Sturm und Drang style characterised by rapid and unpredictable changes in volume, and unfortunately the “Sturm” (“storm”) element found the orchestra wanting. However, they did bring a refreshing clarity of tone to the piece and there was a warmth and body of sound that belied the size of the orchestra. Praise is due for the rhythmic accuracy and also to the affectionately shaped oboe playing of Bede Hanley.

The Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir started the Requiem off a little uncertainly but happily improved as the performance went on. Similar to the orchestral performance, one wanted a little more variation in dynamics; the Kyrie didn’t really have a palpable sense of build-up to the climax (Labadie’s fleet speed for this section probably didn’t help). The following Dies irae was more accurate than terrifying but a strong feeling of energy was put across much better in the Confutatis. On the whole, it was drama that I missed – while the sound was always lovely somehow one was never drawn in emotionally. But still, what an exquisitely tranquil Hostias they gave us!

The solo singers were placed behind the orchestra on the left, which diluted their impact compared to choir and orchestra. And they didn’t really blend particularly well (a pity, since ensemble blend is much more important than any solo contributions in this work). Stephan Loges was the best of the four, sonorous and strong in the Tuba mirum. Nicole Car alternated between moments of bell-like purity and those of more conventional operatic gustiness. Sarah Castle brought a welcome warmth to the alto part, but tenor Paul McCahon sounded strained at times.

As a conductor, Labadie has the gift of making every speed feel right in all three works, even when they were considerably faster than most of the audience would be accustomed to. The pace of each new section in the Requiem seemed to flow naturally from the previous though it was of course often radically different. Given other participants that were a little more engaged with dynamics and drama I could imagine Labadie making a much greater impression. However, the night really belonged to cellist Alban Gerhardt – it is my sincere hope that we get him back here again soon.

***11