John Harbison Requiem – A Contemporary Choral Masterwork

What impressed me most listening to the Requiem was how well it all hung together. Harbison started sketching parts of it back in 1985. A version of the “Sanctus” was written in 1991 for a commission. In 1995, what would become the “Introit” was written for Harbison’s contribution to the multi-composer work, Requiem of Reconciliation. The “Hostias” section was quickly composed in 1999. But the work didn’t all come together until 2001 when the Boston Symphony commissioned it.

Despite this history, the work seems to flow organically from one movement to the next. There’s no “Kyrie Eleison” or “Pie Jesu,” but otherwise Harbison follows the traditional outline of a requiem mass.

Requiem is clearly a product of its time. The music, though primarily tonal, uses chromatic motion and dissonance in a contemporary fashion. And yet there’s something timeless in it. The choral writing especially reminded me of Brahms. Not so much in its actual sound, but in the fullness of the ensemble and the richness of the harmonies (albeit with a modern edge).

Maestro Giancarlo Guerrero masterfully guides his forces through this work. Harbison says that “this piece is not coercively about how you should feel, but rather an offer of a place to be true to your own thoughts.” Guerrero achieves that, I think. The orchestra and chorus have a warm, rich sound. The soloists also seem to be a part — rather than apart — from the ensemble.

Requiem is one of those works that I think should be experienced in its totality — not in isolated movements. Only by taking the sonic journey from start to finish can one get the experience that Harbison was striving for — a journey with your own thoughts.

John Harbison: Requiem
Jessica Rivera, soprano; Michaela Martens, mezzo-soprano;
Nicholas Phan, tenor; Kelly Markgraf, baritone
Nashville Symphony Chorus and Orchestra; Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor
Naxos 8.559841
World Premier Recording

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