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Phoenix Singers & Streicherensemble Celle, St Chad’s Church, Shrewsbury, Sat 6th September, 2017

On the first Saturday in September, Shrewsbury’s Phoenix Singers and the Streicherensemble from Celle in Germany, performed a concert of 18th century music in St Chad’s Church, Shrewsbury under the baton of Richard Walker. The church was built in 1792, the same year in which Mozart’s Requiem was first performed, and there was a further neat link, for Celle’s ancient Schloss, not far from Hanover, was the birthplace of both George I and II of England, Handel’s two major patrons.

With his English career and the Water Music still ten years in the future, 1707 found Handel in Italy, plainsong-like young man but undoubtedly a major talent, absorbing influences from the likes of Corelli and the Scarlattis, yet writing assured music that is without question his own. At just 22 years old, his earliest experiments in opera had been put on hold when the form was banned in the Papal States. Undeterred, “il caro Sassone” turned to other genres and produced a setting of Psalm 110, Dixit Dominus, for the church of Santa Maria in Montesanto. This magnificent work, his earliest surviving autograph, is a vibrant nine-movement piece bursting with youthful energy. “The Lord said unto my Lord: sit thou on my right hand until I make thine enemies thy footstool.”

The opening movement calls for outstanding clarity from strings and singers alike, with the rhythmic cries of “Dixit!” rising steadily higher in a tapestry of sound which makes great demands on the divided soprani. The choir sought variety in dynamics and in their contrast of faster rhythms and the more extended plainsong-like phrases. The soloists made brief appearances before mezzo-soprano Imogen Garner and soprano Sarah Westwood took the first two arias – two contrasting vocal styles which graced the acoustic differently.
The orchestral playing was ideally matched to the choir, with impeccable dynamic balance and bowing – the programme informed us that founder and leader Dorothee Knauer is a great believer in un-conducted playing as an aid to ensemble, and this has evidently borne fruit. The playing by the strings and continuo was sympathetic throughout.

Tenor Tim Kennedy and bass-baritone Richard Moore again provided contrasting voices as the work proceeded. Handel was not afraid to draw on the many great composers with who he was familiar, and there were nods to many masters of the Baroque – Corelli, Purcell (“conquassabit”) and even Monteverdi Et in saecula saeculorum – before a climactic top B flat sent choir and audience to a well-earned interval drink.
If Dixit Dominus is a youthful work, the celebrated Requiem in D by Mozart was written when the composer was already terminally ill, and (if Mozart’s wife Constanze is to be believed) suffering blackouts and forebodings of death. Famously incomplete, the last three movements were mostly – perhaps entirely – constructed by another, and the somewhat overblown orchestration of all but the first movements was the work of at least two other men. The score (with forged signature by Mozart) was eventually passed to Count Walsegg who had commissioned it, and was subsequently lost for many years. Since its rediscovery in 1839, musicologists have pored over its every facet in an attempt to discover exactly who wrote what... 
Whatever the truth of the matter (and Amadeus does little to bring us closer to it), Sussmayer’s completion of the work has remained a favourite even in the face of at least a score of more modern reconstructions, and is now so well known that it brooks few serious challenges. It was this version that the Phoenix Singers brought to the full and appreciative audience.

Phoenix were more comfortable on this familiar ground, and the sopranos, reunited, joined the rest with renewed vigour to give a good account of the varied demands of the Requiem. Richard Walker avoided the temptation to set too slow a tempo for the Introit, and the augmented orchestra were soon right with him. The Dies Irae moved at apocalyptic speed and Mozart’s dramatic word-painting was given sympathetic treatment by the soloists, including Chris Hickman on alto trombone in the Tuba mirum. Confutatis conjured up the fires of hell with its furious string-writing and strident male voices contrasting the ladies’ gentle voca me. Mozart calls his God to ‘help him in his final condition’ and the beginning of Lachrymosa – quite possibly Mozart’s last eight bars of music – confronts us all with our mortality.

Am I alone in finding the rest of this work – much of it only sketchily Mozart at best - almost irrelevant? The choir gave a good account of Quam olim Abrahae, to be sure, and the Benedictus involved the soloists in the sharing and echoing of a beautiful ‘galant’ melody which – who knows – Sussmayer may indeed have found on one of those lost ‘scraps of paper’ he claimed to have had from the hand of the master. The last sections of the Requiem are somewhat like a wedding party after the bride and groom have departed.... The obsequies closed with the revisiting of Mozart’s opening introit and fugue (to different words), claimed by some actually to have been Mozart’s idea.

Phoenix had once again given Shrewsbury a carefully prepared and well delivered evening of first-rate music, and the partnership with the Streichensemble Celle had proved a felicitous one. St Chad’s was a welcoming venue, and as the audience dispersed along Town Walls, more than one voice was heard humming the great fugue theme so well used by both Mozart and Handel…
Jeremy Lund