Music review: Glasgow Cathedral Festival

The Solem Quartet's recital presented its own challenges
The Solem Quartet's recital presented its own challenges
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What to do with Mozart’s unfinished Requiem? It’s one of history’s great musical conundrums. Most performances settle for the completion made by Mozart’s amanuensis Franz Süssmayr, who claimed the composer “played and sang” him the completed parts on his death-bed. Over the centuries, others have made their pitch for an authentic solution, from Neukomm in the 1820s (a manuscript discovered in Brazil) to Harvard musicologist Robert Levin in our own day.

Glasgow Cathedral Festival, Glasgow Cathedral

The common element is adherence to Mozartian “style”. But what American composer Gregory Spears has done is to do away with stylistic continuity and slot in his own originally composed Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei. The result – witnessed in Saturday’s Glasgow Cathedral Festival closing concert by the Choirs of Glasgow University Chapel and Glasgow Cathedral (**) under John Butt – is a mid-flow aberration that at best sounds like Mozart in meltdown, and at worst, what lovers of Pater Schaffer’s Amadeus might whimsically refer to as Salieri’s Revenge.

The onset of the Sanctus signalled a noxious, somewhat demonic turn of events, the relevance of which got lost in an ensuing mash-up of modernist styles, a bland awkwardness that instantly transformed a pleasant, at times biting, performance into something wholly discomforting.

Where the chorus and small professional orchestra – along with a solid solo quartet of Mhairi Lawson (soprano), Beth Taylor (alto), a stirring Christopher Bowen (tenor) and veteran bass Brian Bannatyne-Scott – had thus far basked in the radiant ingenuity of Mozart, they now struggled to convey genuine belief in what they faced, not least those ghostly reminiscences of Mozart sporadically re-emerging from the musical mist, only to strike an irreverent, no doubt unintentional, image of twisted parody.

Of those very odd moments where Spears found something potentially impactful to add – the circular repetition of the “In nomine” motif of the Benedictus conjuring up a madcap vision of wild keening spirits – they were too few to matter. He took a risk, as did the festival, and it bombed. A first-half performance of Bruckner’s E minor Mass that sounded more like sight-reading than fully rehearsed didn’t help.

Fortune shone more favourably on the Solem Quartet (***), whose lunchtime recital on Friday presented its own challenges: to find an expressive range in Haydn and Beethoven convincing enough to fill the vastness of the cathedral; also to counter the chatter of tourists elsewhere in the building.

They succeeded best in Haydn’s Op20 No5, its tragic strains rather sweetly interpreted in a performance dominated, not inappropriately, by the demonstrative charm of lead violinist Amy Tress, particularly those wistful, diversionary flights of fancy that light up the slow Siciliana. Only the Finale let it down, the effective understatement of the double fugue fine to start with, but losing intensity and staying power as the journey progressed.

Beethoven’s Op127 Quartet is a troublesome work, the opening bars a series of interrupted questions waiting to be answered. None was convincingly addressed in a performance that fell short on realising the visceral turbulence of Beethoven’s inner thoughts. Ken Walton