Initially, it felt a little strange to be celebrating Mozart’s 260th Birthday with a performance of his sombre Requiem, but this turned out to be no ordinary performance of the popular work. John Eliot Gardiner and his forces – the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists – really dug deep and gave a gripping, soul-searching and dramatic account of the score. Frankly, I have never heard the work performed with such intensity of sound and such scrutiny to every orchestral detail. Gardiner chose to perform the Süssmayr version, but because he brought the same intensity and focus to both pre-Lacrimosa and post-Lacrimosa sections of the work, the work didn’t seem uneven, as it sometimes can.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
© Sim Canetty-Clarke
Several factors contributed to this vivid and refreshing performance. Perhaps the largest difference to many other performances I’ve heard in the past was the balance between the choir and orchestra. Gardiner treated the orchestra as the equal to the choir (in some performances, the orchestra can be relegated to an accompanying role against a huge choir). Here, the lean and clear-sounding choir consisted of 28 singers (Sop9/Alto6/Ten6/Bass7), against the orchestra of 45 players (with a string section of 29). At times, Gardiner even seemed to treat the orchestra as the dominant force, emphasising orchestral textures and motivic details. The English Baroque Soloists, on period instruments and led excellently by Kati Debrezeni, gave a highly committed performance, playing with the same intensity as in the preceding symphony. Special mention goes to the plangent basset horns and wonderfully reedy period bassoons.

The acoustics of the venue were another contributing factor. In the rather dry, unchurch-like acoustics and the relatively intimate space of Cadogan Hall, the choir sounded direct and immediate and there was no room for us to wallow in melancholy even in the Lacrimosa. It also meant that Gardiner could take some really fast tempi, which would have been lost in cathedral acoustics. He took Dies Irae and Confutatis at a furious pace and they sounded as punchy and terrifying as the Dies Irae in Verdi’s Requiem. Rex tremendae featured the brilliantly brassy trombones emphasizing dotted rhythms. In Hostias, Gardiner brought out the contrast of the homophonic chorus and the jagged orchestral lines, especially the syncopated figures in the violins.

The Monteverdi Choir sang with trademark precision but with warmth, and the basses were particularly impressive – their fugue entries in the Kyrie and Hosanna was excellent. The sopranos, on the other hand, sang with almost treble-like purity. The four vocal soloists were also part of the choir and stepped out for their solos, which has always been Gardiner’s preferred way in Bach performances as well. Soprano Hannah Morrison, with her light and pure voice, sounded ethereal in her solos in the Introitus. Baritone David Shipley sang gloriously in the Tuba mirum, and the vocal quartet, including mezzo Kate Symonds-Joy and tenor Gareth Treseder, came together in the lyrical Recordare.

Gardiner kept tight control of the pacing and it was gripping from beginning to end. Never has the return of the Introitus music in Lux Aeterna sounded so convincing (the transition from Agnus Dei was perfectly judged) and the work concluded energetically with the fugue Cum Sanctis. After so much intesity, the encore Ave Verum Corpus was a balm to the ears and heart.

In the first half of the concert, the orchestra gave an equally vivid performance of Mozart’s G minor Symphony No. 40. In this work, Gardiner made the players perform standing up (except the cellos). I am not sure if this was based on historical evidence (did Mozart’s Viennese orchestras play standing up?) or just for better sound, but either way it resulted in a sonorous and expressive performance. Gardiner’s attention to orchestral colour and texture was evident here too – for example, in the woodwind section, unusually he placed the flute and clarinets together and the oboes and bassoons behind; furthermore, in the outer movements he divided the two horns on either side of the stage, but brought them together in the middle movements. (I was a little surprised though that he chose the later version of the symphony with the clarinets).

The outer movements were fast and stormy, although the there was plenty of fluid phrasing and articulation within the rigorous tempo. For me, the highlight was the Andante second movement, which in contrast was taken at an expansive tempo with all the repeats, bringing out a sublime and timeless quality. Here too Gardiner’s care for textural detail prevailed, such as the handing over of the motifs and the emphasis of the chromaticism. and it felt like looking at the music with a magnifying glass. I left the concert marvelling at Mozart’s genius afresh – surely the best way to celebrate his birthday.