Harbison’s Requiem

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HARBISON: Requiem / Jessica Rivera, sop; Michaela Martens, mezzo; Nicholas Phan, ten; Kelly Markgraf, bar; Nashville Symphony Chorus & Orch.; Giancarlo Guerrero, cond / Naxos 8.559841

Classical requiems are an odd genre. Most of them are written (of course) for the living, but mostly to commemorate the death of someone important—either a major public figure, as in the case of the Cherubini, Berlioz and Verdi Requiems, or someone close to the composer, as in the case of the Brahms (Mozart started out writing his Requiem on commission for some dignitary but in his mind believed he was writing it for himself). Britten wrote his specifically for the horrors of war. I really don’t know what motivated the Fauré Requiem other than his statement that he wrote it as a form of “religious illusion…dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest.” It’s interesting that Fauré’s Requiem is the softest and quietest of them all.

John Harbison apparently began writing his Requiem at about the time he was working on sketches for The Great Gatsby, like Fauré primarily for his own interest. It only became a focused work in 2001 when it was, for a reason not explained, commissioned by the Boston Symphony. In the liner notes, Harbison writes, “Ideally this piece is not coercively about how you should feel, but rather an offer of a place to be true to your own thoughts. I inscribed, as I wrote this piece over 17 years, the names of loved ones who died in that time, not to tell the listener about my reaction, but to remind myself that only living alertly in our own immediate lives gives us any comprehension of war, disaster, destruction on a wider scale.”

Interestingly, Harbison makes no mention of the 9/11 disaster that struck the very month the Requiem was commissioned. Just a thought.

The music is typical of Harbison’s aesthetic, modern but largely tonal with interesting harmonic twists and orchestration. The opening “Introit” is quiet and reflective, with interesting string and wind blends as well as a certain amount of counterpoint in the choral writing, which becomes very busy towards the end of the movement. Interestingly, the opening of the “Dies irae” has a certain Britten-esque sound about it. I heard a xylophone or marimba in the background. In the “Tuba mirum,” one hears odd trombone and muted trumpet figures (similar in orchestration to Gatsby, but used differently) as well as unusual rhythms in the choral writing.

The first vocal soloist one hears is mezzo Michaela Martens, in the “Quid sum miser.” She has an excellent voice, somewhat dark in timbre, solid and with both excellent diction and vocal control. The tenor and baritone also come in during this section, the former with a thin and overly-bright voice, the latter with a fine, rich sound. In the “Confutatis – Lacrimosa,” the music becomes very complex indeed, this time for the soloists against the orchestra. Soprano Rivera also enters in this section; her voice, too, sounded somewhat thin to me, but with an attractive brightness about it. Interestingly, however, they all blend perfectly in the “Offertorium.” The “Sanctus” has an almost Carl Orff quality in his use of rhythm. In the “Agnus Dei,” the tempo slows down as the violin and soprano voice play against one another before the chorus returns.

Throughout the work, Harbison’s compositional skill becomes ever more apparent. To a certain extent, the music is more cerebral than emotionally affecting, which is not to say that it has no energy or emotion, but rather that the complexity of the writing is what holds one’s attention. It is, however, an exceptionally fine piece, clearly one of his very best.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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