The last year of Mozart’s life is invariably associated for many people with the embittered jealousy of F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, when he commissions the overworked and overspending Mozart to write the Requiem in D minor, intending to kill him and claim the piece as his own, though Mozart dies before it is completed and Salieri never gets the score. The reality is of course only slightly less exciting: the eccentric Count Franz von Walsegg commissioned it anonymously in honour of his wife (hoping, like Abraham’s Salieri, to pass it off as his composition), and it was subsequently completed by Süssmayr, the only thing that has kept that composer’s name alive. For this Prom, Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra offered their own perspective on Mozart’s last months, the Requiem a culmination of a programme that also comprised Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major which premiered just under two months before Mozart’s death, and the aria for bass and double bass Per questa bella mano, full of youthful passion.

Iván Fischer conducts the Budapest Festival Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Iván Fischer conducts the Budapest Festival Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The old problem of the Royal Albert Hall’s acoustic was a natural hindrance for double bassist Zsolt Fejérvári, whose smooth technique and clean playing were marred and distorted, though it’s to Fejérvári’s credit that some subtlety still wafted across the throngs of promenaders. Our scheduled bass, Neal Davies was indisposed, and Hanno Müller-Brachmann, a regular collaborator of Fischer’s, stepped in to deliver a performance that was exquisitely phrased and sung with a little touch of wry humour that had slight flavours of Don Giovanni, not so much youthful passion after all as a seasoned bedpost-notcher, reflected in Fejérvári’s insinuating, seductive bowing. With an ambitious top and strong, resonant lower register, Müller-Brachmann and Fejérvári gave a splendid amuse-bouche.

Amadeus didn’t mention the Clarinet Concerto – presumably because the light, joyous piece was at odds with the darker twists in the plot. Mozart wrote it for his friend and fellow Mason, the virtuosic Anton Stadler, the cause for much of the composer's late exploration of the clarinet. For this, Fischer was joined on stage by Ács Ákos, whose playing was for the most part spacious and relaxed. One or two minor slips aside, his technique was quietly strong without being flashy and at its best in the Adagio with notes of sustained beauty, though his deft leaps in the Rondo were much to be admired. The playing from the BFO impressed while avoiding outshining its soloist; the characteristic plush vivacity of the orchestra complemented, rather than contradicted Ákos, and the woodwind in particular offered a moment of particularly fine dialogue with their solo brother. Ákos gave a welcome (and rather jolly) encore of Béla Kovács’ Sholem-alekhem, rov Feidman!, music of an East European Jewish nature, full of colour and giving Ákos an opportunity for one final burst of virtuosity, taken with the same self-effacing manner as in the concerto.

Ákos Ács performs with the Budapest Festival Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Ákos Ács performs with the Budapest Festival Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Given that Iván Fischer has a reputation for innovation, some little twist was always likely for the Requiem. His idea here was to remove the Collegium Vocale Gent from the traditional choral position at the rear and intersperse them within the orchestra (which was substantially rearranged with woodwind brought to the fore); meanwhile the soloists sat on raised chairs in the centre. As an experiment, it’s not worth dismissing immediately – there’s much to be said for that organic blending of chorus and orchestra – but again, the Albert Hall was the worst possible place to attempt this, particularly with a chorus that seemed to be severely in need of reinforcements. The resulting sound, even when one’s ears became accustomed to the diminished quality, lacked the punch that the Requiem deserves. Much of the time it seemed that the BFO was the star of the show; Fischer took the Dies irae at furious, exciting speed and drew playing from the strings in the Lacrimosa that dripped melancholy. In its better moments, the Collegium Vocale Gent gave a highly lyrical performance, creating a softer and warmer sound than one often hears.

Among the soloists Lucy Crowe, rarely disappointing in any context, was the highlight, delivering her lines in the Introitus in crystalline tones, pure and beautifully expressed. Müller-Brachmann’s bass had plenty of authority and richness for an enjoyable Tuba mirum, but Jeremy Ovenden’s tenor was unsteady and Barbara Kozelj’s mezzo didn’t quite manage to come to life. There’s potential in Fischer’s idea, but a different venue and more consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of the orchestra and choir is needed for it to truly come together.

***11