John Harbison Requiem
Jessica Rivera (soprano), Michaela Martens (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Phan (tenor), Kelly Markgraf (baritone); Nashville Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Giancarlo Guerrero
Naxos 8.559841 54:34 mins
American composer John Harbison wrote his Requiem in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, but much of its musical material dates from earlier, starting in 1985 with a draft of the Introit. That opening has a bleached, hollowed-out quality in this recording, with short-breathed, jabbing choral entries and a fugue whose downward trajectory suggests the sickened, traumatic aftermath of a catastrophe. Slithering brass and rattling percussion underpin the chromatic exclamations of the Dies irae, and the muting of fanfare instruments in the ‘Tuba mirum’ creates a sickly, jaundiced impression. Key tutti points are punchily delivered by the choir and orchestra, although elsewhere ensemble can be a touch slippery.
Some of the most interesting music is in sections featuring the soloists. The spidery woodwind writing accompanying ‘Quid sum miser,’ the combination of bells and slithery violins in ‘Recordare’, the plinking combination of harp and piano at ‘Qui mariam absolvisti’ – these telling instrumental touches enhance the music’s often strange, half-lit soundworld. Moments of qualified optimism emerge in the Requiem’s second half, especially in the bullish, insistent Sanctus. But the concluding In paradisum is equivocal in tone, the vision of peace compromised by a questioning violin solo and unsettled harmonies. The vocal soloists make a mainly positive impression, as does conductor Giancarlo Guerrero. All told, this is a solidly reliable account of a worthwhile work.