For Benjamin Franklin there were only two certainties in life: taxes and death. To which, in this admittedly secular age, one might add a belief in the after-life. Quite simply, we owe some of our greatest art to visions of what lies beyond the grave. In this enterprisingly devised programme, which was part of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s current “Belief and Beyond Belief” series, Nathalie Stutzmann was making her conducting debut with the LPO.

Nathalie Stutzmann © Simon Fowler
Nathalie Stutzmann
© Simon Fowler

It was an anonymous “messenger in black” who in July 1791, his last year on earth, brought Mozart the commission for a requiem mass. Without its completion by one of the composer’s own pupils, Franz Süssmayr, it is doubtful whether we would today have the work to which one Ludwig von Köchel gave the catalogue number 626. Even if the first movement was the only one to be fully written out by Mozart, what we hear today is what the composer sketched or provided the inspiration for.

Given that Stutzmann was using well over a hundred voices, there was never any doubt that the choral contributions were destined to take centre-stage, with one half of the choristers positioned immediately behind the basset horns and bassoons, and the other half in the traditional choir area. She also chose to place her quartet of soloists in front of the wind, underlining the collegiate feel to the performance. Switching repeatedly from baton to the use of her expressive hands, she devoted much energy and care to moulding the choral lines. This Mozart Requiem was anything but funereal, with brisk tempi and a life-affirming vigour throughout. However, coming in at a mere forty-seven minutes it was a little short on contemplation and introspection.

In the opening Requiem aeternam Stutzmann made much of the hairpin dynamics; with sharply accentuated rhythms and growls from the black-coated trombones (who cut through the textures of the Lacrimosa magnificently) underpinning the body of sound, the entreaties to the Lord in the Kyrie made a confident statement. There was no need for any extravagant gestures in the Dies irae either: Stutzmann knew what she wanted and conveyed her intentions clearly to the London Philharmonic Choir. Their full-throated attack at the start of Rex tremendae was especially impressive, but there was then an excessive slowing, presumably to underline the beseeching quality in the words salva me, which almost brought the performance to a standstill. Equally questionable in its effect was the slightly larmoyant quality in the Lacrimosa, where the choral lines verged on the swooning. A few problems of coordination aside, for example at the start of the Sanctus, and weaknesses in the tenor line in Domine Jesu, the choral singing had commitment and fervour, particularly in the Agnus Dei.

None of the soloists had a big operatic voice. As a quartet, they worked well together, notably in the Recordare. In their individual contributions they were more variable: the soprano Kateryna Kasper had a slightly tremulous start, the baritone of Leon Košavić was underpowered in the testing tessitura of the Tuba mirum and, although she led off beautifully in the Benedictus, the contralto of Sara Mingardo remained somewhat reticent. Best of all was the fresh-toned lyrical tenor, Robin Tritschler. Not the least of the orchestral delights was the dramatic timpani-playing of Simon Carrington.

In the short first half of this concert Stutzmann conducted a finely-shaped and well-contrasted performance of the Richard Strauss tone poem, Tod und Verklärung. There was no wallowing from her, just as there was to be no excessive emoting from her in the main work. The dark wind colours and gentle susurrations from the strings created an atmospheric introit to the drama of the main Allegro section that had characteristic power and exuberance, so typical of the young composer in his prime. In an early reaction to the work, the Viennese critic Hanslick ridiculed the “dreadful battle of dissonances”, “screaming woodwinds”, “thundering brass” and “raging fiddles”. Modern ears would have found little reason to carp at the mellifluous sounds of Juliette Bausor’s flute, for instance. However, with the string complement reduced by all the back desks, the last ounce of weight and tonal depth was missing in order to do full justice to the opulent scoring. Nor did Stutzmann always heed the advice of the composer never to smile encouragingly at the brass; at times it had an uncomfortably aggressive edge.

In a short address before the concert started, Stutzmann said that she and her colleagues were dedicating the performances to the victims of Wednesday’s terrorist outrage in London, adding that they were the lucky ones because they were able to express their horror and grief at what had happened through their music-making. As we all glimpse, in Andrew Marvell’s memorable words, “time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near”, we can but ponder on our own earthly existence.