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Interview with Jörn Boysen / Musica Poetica

img  Tobias Fischer

Tell us about your work on the Mozart Requiem in 2008 ...
Jörn Boysen: One of the things we worked on for half a year with the choir, just to give you an example, was getting them to sing „rex tremendae majestatis“ right: To exercise restraint, to sing with a clear rhythm. To bring out the majestic qualities of the music, which are often neglected because people tend to believe a requiem should always be sung in sadness and never too loud and without accents. These things were actually easier to achieve with amateurs than with professionals. It's sometimes hard to make professionals see things in a new and different way.
The funny thing is that I read some emails sent between the members of the orchestra. They appeared to consider me slightly mad for making use of these tempi. But it doesn't actually sound fast! It sounds completely logical. It's the same with the „Hostias“. At first, some of the musicians involved simply couldn't believe this would work. But when we played it together with everyone for the first time - including the choir - you could see how their eyes suddenly lit up.

A Requiem doesn't necessarily have to be sad either. It can also be consoling, for example ...
Jörn Boysen: Well, at first sight it is pretty cruel, actually. There are perhaps two passages, at best, where there the lyrics are slightly more optimistic: The „Benedictus“, for example, which features a clarinet passage which sounds almost like folk-music if you play this music precisely the way it was written. The vocal parts even remind me of yodeling. Or take the „Recordare“, with its dissonantly juxtaposed clarinets. The real question is: Why should one play a passage, which is about opening up the book of sins and about judgement day, sacredly, slowly and with a tone of beauty? And what is a beautiful tone anyway? How to define that?

Where do you find answers to these questions?

Jörn Boysen: To choose the right affect and tempo I will check the sources, the appropriate time signature, say for example Andante, and how quickly the harmonies are changing.
Martin Küster: You have to remember that the piece was written at a time, when, in fact, a musical phrase would be considered a piece of music which could be sung without having to stop to catch your breath.

Was it always clear that it was going to be Süssmayr's version with the completion by Neukomm?
Jörn Boysen: Well, in the early stages I was even thinking about laying hands on the score myself. And then I found out about the completed version by Neukomm, who was born twenty-two years after Mozart in Salzburg and a huge fan of the composer. Neukomm, as Bohemian pianist and composer Moscheles has indicated, was a walking encyclopedia, a gifted musician as well as a conductor and he worked at the Portuguese court as an ambassador of the French crown. So you could say he was a diplomat with a passion for music. Neukomm staged Mozart's Requiem in 19th century Rio de Janeiro. The text of the Requiem wasn't completed by Mozart and so Neukomm wrote a „Libera Me“ in the style of his period. I thought it was incredibly exciting and no one in the Netherlands had done it before. So we took up the challenge and went for it.

But the Requiem itself wasn't particularly important to you?
Jörn Boysen: Not yet, no. (laughs) When we first approached the project with the Hollands Vocaal Ensemble, I was rather thinking of German or French music from around 1700. Simply because that's what we usually do. But we went ahead with it anyway and it turned out great.

Do you think you would have opted for a different approach if you had known all of the other recordings of the Requiem?
Jörn Boysen: I did actually know many of the other takes. In Lübeck, we spent an entire semester analysing Mozart's Requiem, listening to a plethora of different versions and including pieces that influenced the work – other Requiems, such as the Michael Haydn Requiem or the Requiem by Jean Gilles. In that sense, you could say that half the music wasn't even written by Mozart but by others. The amazing thing, though, is how wonderfully he weaves these different influences into something entirely his own.
You have to know something about Mozart. It's obviously not as though he couldn't compose – I mean, he would write an entire symphony out on paper by heart! But he wasn't actually brought up with the kind of counterpoint appearing in the music of Bach and Händel. If you take a look at his sketch books, you can tell how difficult it was for him to write a fugue. So it is extremely exciting to see him take in these – at least to him - alien styles and turn them into an organic part of his work.

Is there no other recording which features the same tempi you're using?
Jörn Boysen: I did discover one – but this is after I had already formed my own opinion on the piece. I didn't want to listen to other people's recordings before that. I didn't want to unconsciously copy them, after all – even though a lot of people will do just that. If you go to Youtube and listen to a random selection of beginnings to the piece, you will hear, over and over again, Karajan's tempi - perhaps because the general consensus seems to be that you can't go wrong with them.

It can admittedly be hard playing against this canon of established interpretations by some of the most renowned conductors in the business ...
Jörn Boysen: Perhaps, but I don't care. As mentioned, I did hear these other interpretations at some point, even though I didn't explicitily focus on them while preparing the piece. So I was well aware of how the work was and still is generally performed. But I simply don't esteem these approaches highly. You have to understand that it's not just about playing fast tempi. You have to know exactly why you're choosing them, otherwise it won't work. It depends on where the accents are in the music, where the harmonic changes are. There is a rhythm to the text and it needs to sound natural. It's about emphasising the parts that need to be emphasised and avoiding emphasising passages that shouldn't be. What I'm doing is playing it the way musicians in the time of Mozart would most likely have done it. The way you'll mostly hear it performed, though, is with the desire of 21st century musicians who want their harmonies to sound harmonic.

But by presenting it thus „harmonically“, however beautiful some of these renditions may be, something is also lost. One could argue that you won't get to the soul of this music by playing it like Karajan ...
Jörn Boysen: People are, of course, arguing the other way round. They're claiming that in my version, beauty is lost. Even though I really don't understand why that should be.

One of the practical problems is that you rarely have enough time to prepare these kinds of radically different version ...
Jörn Boysen: When I talked to some of the performers, they didn't even think it necessary, because they'd already played it so often. We even had some people quitting the project – which, I should mention, was very well-paid – because they felt we were rehearsing too much. For me, it was just the other way round: I was extremely happy that we finally had all the time we needed. After all, this work is all too often performed after a meagerly one or two rehearsals. Musicians will be satisfied with just „getting through it“ without major problems. It can be tempting to get used to making music like that. But a conductor needs time if he really wants musicians to understand his ideas and views about a work. For a performance to be clear and understandable, all musicians have to work as one big instrument. We have to present the public with the best and make them understand why working for excellence matters.

By Tobias Fischer

Jörn Boysen / Musica Poetica Discography:
Musicalische Frühlings-Früchte (Challenge Classics) 2009

Jörn Boysen / Musica Poetica
Mozart Requiem 2012 project site

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