There is no best recording of Mozart’s Requiem, there are only personal favorites (mine is the one from Malgoire, I have always found it comforting and satisfying, don’t ask me why).
There is however, as of the end of October, the most important recording of the Requiem, Harmonia Mundi’s release with René Jacobs leading the Freiburger Barockorchester, the RIAS Kammerchor, and singers Sophie Karthäuser, Marie-Claude Chappuis, Maximilian Schmitt, and Johannes Weisser.
This may become my favorite, and yours–Jacobs is the greatest contemporary Mozart interpreter, in his own universe entirely, and this is as beautifully played and sung as one would expect. What Jacobs gets out of his musicians is a palpable sense of character and drama and the feeling that all the tempos, rhythms, and phrases are being played with perfect logic. And there is the pure loveliness of the singers, and ravishing warmth from the musicians.
What makes this important is that it is truly new Mozart, a careful, learned, and accomplished editing and recomposing of the standard Süssmayr edition, done by contemporary composer Pierre-Henri Dutton and finished in 2016.
The story of how the Requiem came down to us is evocative enough to produce plays and movies. What is left out, of Amadeus in particular, is how the Requiem came to be.
When the composer died on December 5, 1791, the only completed movement was the Introit. From there through the Hostias, there were vocal line and some orchestration and figured bass marked. Even this was fragmented–there were only eight bars to the Lacrimosa. In normative circumstances, we would expect an unfinished work to remain just that at a composer’s death. There was no fascination with Mozart as a genius, no drive to bring his unfinished works to posterity.
There was money, though, the money that Mozart’s wife Constanze, with a second child on the way, now owed to creditors. To get the full commission, the Requiem had to be finished, and it had to look like Mozart finished it, which in the late 18th century meant that the handwriting had to be a close enough match. As Dutron points out in his detailed and informative notes, there was very little to go on as a basis to finish the piece.
Three composers (possibly four) had a hand in producing the version most commonly heard, Mozart’s student Franz Jacob Freystädtler, followed by Joseph Leopold Eybler, then finally Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Süssmayr was not a student of Mozart’s but he had helped with the recitatives of La clemenza di Tito, and did some copying for Die Zauberflöte (Mozart apparently had a low opinion of Süssmayr). He finished the orchestration, and, from scratch, wrote the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. That was the score that completed the commission and earned Madame Mozart a precious 25 ducats.
That is also the score that mixes great music from Mozart, with brilliant counterpoint and vocal ensembles at the level of his great achievements in Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni with the totally ordinary, stiff music of Süssmayr.
Using the great advantage of historical insight and hindsight, Dutron has drastically improved what we are used to hearing. His comments on his own work are fascinating:
Admittedly, my work does lay claim to a form of historical truth, and I set myself a rule of constant vigilance, testing each avenue I explored with meticulous research. Yet to take rigour as my sole guide would have led me to avoid taking risks and obliged me to be overcautious. I must therefore acknowledge that the work I have done contains an irreducible element of arbitrariness…
Technically, Dutron reorchestrated the unfinished, and heavily rewrote Süssmayr’s contributions, producing a score he calls Süssmayr Extended heard on this release (there is another version, Mozart Extended, where Dutron wrote his own versions of the missing movements, but it is unheard here).
The result is unquestionably better than what we’ve had for centuries. While not quite Mozart, it is far more fluid, subtle, sophisticated, and beautiful than what Süssmayr wrought. In particular, the harmonies of the Allegro cadences in the Sanctus and Benedictus are absolutely sublime and with a tang of modernism, and the Agnus Dei is transformed into poetry, rather than the previous prose.
What I like best of all is Dutron’s contemporary sensibility. The Cum sanctis tuis again has great harmony, and is full of Dutron’s personality. More than just concludung the Requiem, it looks back from our point in time on the tragic loss of Mozart, and ends with a quiet, but strong unreconciled despair. This is a Mozart Requiem never heard before.
(For comparison, I recommend another superb recent recording, the reconstruction of the first performance, from the Dunedin Consort and John Butt.)