I Musici de Montréal’s program of works by Beethoven and Mozart on Friday helped remind us of the original intention or mandate of given works. Mozart’s Requiem, which was at the heart of the program, was originally commissioned to commemorate the premature death of Count Walsegg-Stuppach’s 20-year old wife. Mozart died before finishing the work and a pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, completed it. In 1993 the American musicologist, Robert Levin presented his ‘completed’ version of the Requiem in which he corrected what he called Süssmayr’s “errors in musical grammar”. Though not insignificant, Levin’s changes hardly alter the work’s overall impact or import.

One of the major changes is the Amen that is tagged onto the Lacrimosa and closes the Sequence section of the Requiem. Here as elsewhere, the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal’s chorus sounded pushed to its limits, the collective top of both sopranos and tenors appearing under constant and considerable pressure. Indeed, though the chorus exhibited a commendable command of style (with little obtrusive vibrato) and unity of purpose, their contributions were more notable for homogeneity of sound and musical accuracy than vocal depth, richness and range of colour. The soloists were not ideally matched but combined willingly and winningly in ensembles. They were dominated by the French tenor, Yann Beuron whose honeyed tone, polished technique and refined musicality were a constant joy. Baritone, Aleksey Bogdanov was a little dull of timbre but especially attentive to both nuance and dynamic colour. Mezzo Emma Char was musically irreproachable but vocally light-weight while Charlotte Corwin’s gleaming and effortless soprano rang out above the stave but spun less convincingly and less freely below it.

Conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducted the Mozart, as he did the Beethoven, with much conviction. There is a good deal to admire in his interpretation, most notably the musical accuracy and fluidity he brought to the Confutatis and closing Lux Aeterna sections, for example. He had occasional problems of orchestral and overall balance but for all his drive and impulsion (and his tendency to push certain tempi), his reading rarely touched. Though coldly clinical in its lucidity, it seemed largely bereft of expressivity, spiritual inspiration or sheer human warmth. 

Zeitouni’s conducting also had more muscle than musicality in Gustav Mahler’s arrangement for string orchestra of Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 11 in F minor. Here too, I Musici de Montréal showed a formidable unity of attack and direction as well as fine articulation in passage work. Yet the core sound was occasionally opaque (as in the Allegretto) and lacking in roundness. Few of Beethoven’s quartets seem so structurally unconventional and even though Zeitouni was alive, even attentive to the work’s striking internal contrasts and dramatic transitions and tangents, Mahler’s layered and textured harmonic underpinning seemed to elude him. For all his physical implication, Zeitouni had a tendency to stand outside the music rather than evolve within and from it.

The program started with Beethoven’s Elegischer Gesang (Elegiac song) for voices and string quartet (here, string ensemble). Written “to the memory of the wife of my honoured friend Pasqualati”, its simplicity of utterance made its mark, the orchestra playing in sculptured phrases with the chorus matching it with flowing and warmly lyrical vocalism. Sometimes true musical eloquence and emotional truth can and do meet.