After the visceral thrills of their recently-released CD of music by contemporary composer James MacMillan, the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Colin Davis move back to mainstream repertoire with their February release of the Mozart Requiem.
The results are scarcely less exciting, even if Davis' solid approach to this piece sounds too steeped in nineteenth-century Romanticism compared to the recent wave of recorded performances which aim to recreate the performing conditions of the eighteenth century. This is quite a fast performance on the whole – taking four minutes off the running time of the conductor's previous recording on Philips, for instance – but some won't be able to tolerate the weighty orchestral timbre and full complement of choral forces.
On the other hand, if you're willing to take it for what it is, there's much to enjoy here. Davis may not seek out the light touch of, say, Christopher Hogwood's recording with the Academy of Ancient Music (which also offers a 'restored' text), but some of the colours he produces are unquestionably gorgeous. His full-throated attack means that the flames of hell rise up with unprecedented fieriness in the 'Dies irae'; the fugal lines of the 'Kyrie eleison' are sung with vigorous pleading; and the 'Sanctus' has a golden sheen which helps to portray the glory of God mentioned in the text. And Davis continues to work his magic in Mozart as much as he ever did: there may be few concessions to trendy performance practice theories, but the composer is well served by the conductor's instinctive understanding of the expressive framework of the work.
Davis' young team of soloists offer intelligent and fresh performances without perhaps rivalling the greatest Mozartians on record. Andrew Kennedy and Darren Jeffery team up again after their stint at Covent Garden as Young Artists, excelling in the 'Tuba mirum', and I enjoyed soprano Marie Arnet's performance on record far more than I did in concert. She sounds particularly beautiful in her parts of the 'Domine Jesu' and blends nicely with rich-voiced mezzo Anna Stéphany in all their duetted passages, not least the 'Benedictus'.
That said, the all-solo 'Recordare' movement is disappointing, with a muddiness of sound and lack of purpose resulting in a loss of focus. One of the reasons is that here, the denseness of sound that Davis favours means that the performance does not bring out the gentle, limpid interweaving string lines; by contrast, the Hogwood recording is fabulously clear and intimate. Another problem with Davis' approach is his tendency towards unrelenting tension, where contrast is surely needed. The 'Lacrimosa' becomes far too bombastic and misses the haunting sense of dread inherent in the fragmented vocal lines; sometimes a greater effort to produce the piano dynamics indicated in the score both here and in the 'Domine Jesu' would make this a more complete experience.
Nevertheless, with the London Symphony Chorus in magnificent form and the orchestral forces as receptive as ever to Davis' vision, this is a highly respectable recording of Mozart's valedictory masterpiece.
Mozart's Requiem is available to pre-order on Amazon now.
Forthcoming highlights on LSO Live include Mahler's Sixth Symphony with Valery Gergiev (March 2008), and Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini (April 2008) and Tippett's A Child of Our Time in July 2008.