Two contraltos in one room is a high concentration of contraltos; except that one of them appeared in the role of conductor. Recently appointed RTÉ Principal Guest Conductor, Nathalie Stutzmann directed two very different works spinning around the theme of death and the peace found through it by men: Richard Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) and Mozart’s Requiem.

The program juxtaposed just about opposite ends of the musical spectrum: the impure, modern, descriptive music of a tone poem versus the purity of the most classical of composers. While Strauss’ symphonic work is so pictorial to be almost onomatopoeic, Mozart’s choral one abstractly conveys moods in place of images, albeit the lyrics are highly figurative themselves.  

The RTÉ Symphony Orchestra delivered a version of Tod und Verklärung as spectacular as the score, with the rich orchestration very well articulated in each of the four movements. The scene described in the tone poem is that of a dying artist who, unable to find the realisation of his ideals in life, after seeing his whole life pass by in front of his eyes, eventually reaches the transfiguration of death.

Delicate combinations of harp, violin and flute representing passing childhood memories give way to startling percussion and to pressing, unnerving brass, depicting no more clearly the incumbency of death. The music, after an uplifting crescendo suggesting the heavenly transfiguration, ends quietly, in great contrast with the struggles of adulthood described in the third movement. It was impossible not to be moved by Strauss' roller coaster of emotions.

In a way, Mozart’s Requiem doesn’t sound like Mozart at all. Although, in passing moments, you recognise his trademark luminous violins, for most of the time you are absorbed by the gravity of this choral work, and wonder how this could be the same composer who wrote Don Giovanni. His own imminent death at the time of writing the piece sheds some light unto the credibility of this music, while the fact that the score and orchestration were completed by another musician (Süssmayr) after his death gives us an insight into their heterogeneity. Mozart's eclectic genius may explain the rest.

The RTÉ Philharmonic Choir maintained cohesiveness and impressed for the great part of the performance, with a special mention for the female voices. Stutzmann opted for fast tempi, particularly effective in the Dies irae, where the impetus of the music brilliantly matched the apocalyptic image of “day of wrath, that day that will dissolve the world in ashes [...] when the judge will come to judge all the things strictly.” On a side note, the translation from Latin provided in the programme notes was here, and elsewhere, a bit free. The Lacrimosa was also immaculately executed.

The four soloists were thoughtfully chosen and paired: Máire Flavin’s delicate soprano matched the luminous tenor of Robin Tritschler, and Sara Mingardo’s contralto harmonised with the rich bass of Leon Košavić. While all of them managed to impress within the restricted soloist roles, one of my highlights of the evening was the Italian veteran contralto. Well, yes, true contraltos are a rarity and it is an emotion to hear one on stage per se. But, also, I loved the velvet quality of Mingardo’s voice.     

Art is not moral. Its language is beauty, not goodness. But one thing is for sure: whether if approaching these two works from an atheist or a religious stance, listening to them prompts one to reflect on their own life, making you wish to posses that death bed wisdom before the time, actually, comes.