The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir unveils Robert Gehrenbeck’s own version of Mozart’s Requiem in a impressive concert that showed the links between Bach and Mozart.

April 15, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.


By John W. Barker

Conductor and director Robert Gehrenbeck’s annual April concerts with his Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) have come to be important events on our musical scene, and his latest one, held at Luther Memorial Church on Saturday night, set new standards of enterprise.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Nov 17, 2012 Bethel Lutheran

The essential point of the program was to observe the impact of music by Johann Sebastian Bach on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s creativity, as illustrated in works composed in the final months of the latter’s foreshortened life.

After a prologue of Mozart’s late motet, “Ave verum corpus,” we were given Bach’s glorious motet, “Jesu, meine Freude” to represent music that Mozart discovered among the works by the Leipzig master.

The first half ended with a march and the trial-by-fire scene from Act II of The Magic Flute.  Then, after the intermission, came the pièce de résistance, Mozart’s great Requiem.

For the program’s first half, Gehrenbeck (below) limited himself to his own group, the Madison-based Wisconsin Chamber Choir, which is 48 members strong.

Robert Gehrenbeck

Scholars and musicians argue over how to treat this particular chorale-motet masterpiece — whether all of its 11 sections should be for full choir, or whether it should be done with a single singer per part, or whether some of its sections might be reserved for a consort of soloists.

While Gehrenbeck chose to give one section to a very tiny mini-chorus of eight singers, he opted otherwise for full five-part chorus throughout. Though the work comes to us as an a cappella piece, it is thought that instrument doublings were used by Bach (below).


Gehrenbeck avoided that approach, but he added a basso seguente, a doubling of the bass line by cello and organ, that was really not necessary musically, though it probably helped the singers on pitch.

Given the church’s acoustics, different parts of the very large sold-out audience received a varied choral sound, somewhat blended at the rear but still quite clear where I sat, up front, and given a beautiful glow in a careful but very satisfying performance

The March of the Priests and then the “Armed Men” scene, both from Mozart’s last opera, are full of spiritual and Masonic meaning. Here Gehrenbeck drew not only on some young solo singers, but also a small orchestra of 22 seasoned local players.  While some parallels with Bach might be traced in these excerpts, the real influence for such material, not properly recognized, was Gluck (below).  (Mozart never used trombones in his operas, save when he was drawing inspiration from Gluck’s techniques for solemn and ceremonial music.)

Christoph Willibald von Gluck

For the second half, devoted to the Requiem, Gehrenbeck added to the scene the 31 members of the Chamber Singers (below) of his home base, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. He did, at least at one point, pare things down to his smaller local group, but otherwise he took the opportunity to create a very full and ample choral sound.

UW- Whitewater Chamber Singers BW

To be sure, his tempos were judiciously cautious, designed so as not to push the pulses or strain the total bulk, but there was fine discipline throughout.

The conductor produced some subtle nuances along the way.  I particularly appreciated his clever pattern of decrescendo-to-crescendo on the repetitions of the words “quam olim Abrahae” in the Offertory.

Instead of having a single vocal quartet, Gehrenbeck used constantly changing groups of singers drawn mainly from the choir ranks.  This gave rotating opportunities to lots of singers, some of them really good–I want to hear more of contralto Sarah Leuwerke–though at the price of constant parading of bodies on and off of the scene.

This performance had some very special qualities, however. An acknowledged and beloved masterpiece, Mozart’s Requiem nevertheless has textual problems that keep generation after generation of musicologists and editors in business. (Below is a manuscript of the Dies Irae from Mozart’s Requiem with annotations by Joseph Eybler).

Mozart Requiem mss Dies Irae K626 Requiem Dies Irae

Mozart died before he could complete this last score, as is well known. His widow, desperate to have it finished to win the needed fee, first tried to have one Mozart student, Joseph Eybler, complete the work, but he soon pulled out, and her second choice was a lesser student, Franz Xaver Süssmayer, who carried out the task. (Below is an etching of Sussmayer at Mozart’s death bed.)

Franz Xaver Sussmayrwith dying at Mozart's deathbed

Süssmayer’s version of the score long stood as its “standard” performing version, but in recent decades editors have been seeking ways to overcome its weaknesses and get closer to what Mozart himself would have done.

Thus, Franz Beyer has cleaned up the orchestration, and has added notes to the end of the “Hosanna” refrains to the Sanctus and Benedictus which bring Süssmayer’s abrupt conclusions more into line with Mozartean style.  Other editors have gone much further into rewriting what are understood to be just Süssmayer’s own contributions.

Robert Gehrenbeck (below, conducting) has now entered these lists on his own merits.  He has basically used the Beyer edition, but replaced the wind and timpani parts in the Dies irae with those that Eybler had originally proposed. Gehrenbeck has also interpolated a short passage in the Benedictus to allow for an appropriate change of key.

Robert Gehrenbeck conducting

In all these respects, Gehrenbeck’s educated guesses are as good as anybody else’s. In this uniquely personal collation, he has created a fully plausible text for a fully convincing performance.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir 1

What a refreshing, thought-provoking, and inspiring concert!  Remember, Madisonians, how lucky we are.


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