Bach’s setting of the canticle Magnificat and Mozart’s Requiem would never be the closest pals if they were people. The former is resolutely joyful and optimistic; an exultation in the Lord. The latter is its cynical, more modern counterpart; plaintive with the susurrations of the dead and ominous with threats of Judgment Day. Though written just 58 years apart, their moods are as comparable as Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer novels are to Albert Camus’ emblem of existential depression, L’Étranger.

Enoch zu Guttenberg © Andreas Müller
Enoch zu Guttenberg
© Andreas Müller

Thus religious worship may be the only intangible theme that unites these two works. Performed by the Chorgemeinschaft Neubeuern Chorus and the KlangVerwaltung Orchestra under the baton of Enoch zu Guttenberg, the vast entity strove to capture every single tiny Baroque and Classical facet; every glimpse into both jubilation and blackness; steps taken through the gates of Heaven, Hell’s inferno and the toxic smell of fear in Purgatory. Considering the goal that these musicians thrust onto themselves, their achievement deserves great extolment.

Admittedly there was occasional disjointedness across the strings as they engaged in Bach’s Magnificat. The tempo was racy and the overall furore suggested the imminent cue of an organ although there was none. What reigned supreme was the rhythm. A cleanly played set of brass instruments and sublimely harkening timpani punctuated this work with a Baroque grandeur. At the same time, a gentle waltz embodied Ex exultavit and accented and rapt semiquavers drilled away through the Fecit potentiam. There was no indistinct scurrying along the notes here. Fuelled by the majesty of this celebration, however, some crucial details were amiss: namely the slow lulling melancholy of  Et misericordia and some mellifluousness on the violins in Gloria Patri. There they found themselves outperformed by a cast of raucous cellos and bold double basses.

Launching into Mozart’s Requiem, Guttenberg took his chorus and orchestra into another chapter of this novella. The bassoon solo heralding the Introitus was both eerily diffident and menacing. Attacks on the strings were sublimely sinister as they echoed the journey of the dead into the afterlife; the brass seemed to command its orchestral partners with the harrowing vigour of a formidable deity. Everywhere the chorus sang not just with zeal but with measured out ardour; their own stops and starts no less thorough and clean than the instrumentalists’. In Rex tremendae, the contrast of their sharp and brusque attacks with abrupt silences created the much-needed portentous sentiment of imminent entropy.

As the performers wove from the softer and solemn Tuba mirum into this movement we could hear them attempting to envelop sentiments from a body of contrasts. There was the fierce tremolo of boisterous strings at odds with their own consecutive gentle brushstrokes; later in the Recordare, a hoard of predatory male voices was pitted against the much higher tones of the harp-like, angelic female voices. Mozart’s dark Requiem is a wrangle between Heaven and Hell and these performers came very close to expounding this concept.

Yet this was not to be. Considering the arduous nature of both these great works, it would have been hard to expect it. For when Guttenberg brought his passion-filled ensembles into that beloved Lacrymosa, they held fast to their heated state when they should have lamented and slowed down and gently despaired. It constituted something of an anti-climax to the audience’s expectation of traversing the canvas of life-and-death sentiments. The Domine Jesu was ensconced in a lightning pace and there was some jumble among the strings in the Sanctus; woodwinds fell a little bit apart and the nuances seemed to get lost in the jungle. It was effervescent, it was powerful. It simply did not encompass the whole as it could have done.

The soloists of the evening, on the other hand, imbued this music with far more grace and feeling than one would ordinarily expect to hear in a mass. From the very beginning mezzo-soprano Anke Vondung sang with exquisite unilaterality from the pit of her lowest notes to the apex of the high-pitched ones. Susanne Bernhard’s instrument gleamed with the metallic sheen of aluminium; not only could she execute docile piano sounds and gradually rise to the fore in the hesitant crescendos, but in the Recordare her voice shone with the kind of legato and timbre one heard from Leontyne Price. Bass Tareq Nazmi conducted his declamatory instrument with both awe and fear as it became the symbol of God’s mercy and capacity for destruction. Somewhat too affected was tenor Daniel Johannsen. He emphasised some diminuendos a little too much; several top notes were too hushed to be heard.

Catharsis was an experience this evening may not have brought. But it was an enormous pleasure watching these performers trying hard to get us there.