On the coldest night of the year so far, people turned out in their dozens to attend All Saints church for a Mozart feast. I had thought that I had turned up in plenty of time, but still could only find a place at the back of the church, which paid testament to the increasing popularity of the Phoenix Choir. My view was thus confined to the upper tiers of the choir and the Conductor of the invisible orchestra (excepting the double bass player, who played with considerable enthusiasm and aplomb).
We were treated to a fine taster of Mozart works before the main course: two orchestral pieces: the ever popular Allegro from Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, with effervescent playing from the Phoenix Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Masonic Funeral Music (previously unknown to me, but definitely worth a second hearing).
The choir sang Veni Sancte Spiritus, showcasing Mozarts's prodigious talent, as he composed it at the tender age of 12. There were then two pieces from Vesperae Solennes de Confessore: the much loved Laudate Dominum, featuring soloist Ansy Boothroyd, and the Magnificat, before the first half finished with Ave Verum Corpus, a favourite motet composed barely six months before Mozart's death.
Now to the main menu: the Requiem was commissioned in July, 1791, via an anonymous emissary from Count Franz von Walsegg, who promised Mozart a generous payment to compose the Requiem which would be performed annually in memory of the Count's late wife. The use of an anonymous intermediary was possibly connected with the Count's habit of paying composers for their work and then passing it off as his own. Mozart employed his usual practice of sketching out the sections of his work, but was also busy with various commissions and succumbed in November of that year to a viral epidemic, dying just two weeks later. His widow, Constanze, employed Mozart's assistant, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, to complete the work, which had stopped at the eighth bar of the Lacrimosa. Nonetheless, the Requiem works wonderfully as a whole and complete work.
There are five sections, each concluded by a fugue; the work is driven by the chorus throughout, supported by the orchestra, which is vivid and evocative. There are some echoes of the Masonic compositions and even operatic overtones.
The soloists, Ansy Boothroyd (soprano), Lindsay Richardson (alto), Mark Curtis (tenor) and Sebastian Charlesworth (bass) worked well as an ensemble; the quartets were especially stirring, and we enjoyed the soaring soprano, the creamy alto, the rich operatic tenor and the warm middle register of the baritone in their individual solos.
Mozart's Requiem has now become standard repertoire for local choirs, but it has to be remembered that it remains a deceptively difficult piece and the Phoenix choir more than rose to the occasion. The attention to dynamics and diction were perfectly realised, the swell of sound augmented by the inclusion of the Phoenix choir from Maastricht, all flourishing beautifully under the crisp and precise ( and sometimes almost balletic) baton of Michael Fields. At times we did lose the alto line and the acoustic was not very good in my part of the seating, but these were small disappointments and the overall sound was rich and full. A simply wonderful evening of music, this choir goes from strength to strength!
All Saints' Church, Eastbourne, February 2019