Verdi’s Requiem Opens the LSO’s 2016-17 Season

23/09/2016

Verdi Requiem: Erika Grimaldi (soprano); Daniela Barcellona (mezzo-soprano); Francesco Melli (tenor); Michele Pertusi (baritone); London Symphony Chorus; London Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 18.9.2016. (MMB)

Verdi, Messa da Requiem (1874)

Verdi wrote his Requiem in 1873-74 and conducted its premiere himself in Milan, on 22nd May 1874, to mark the first anniversary of the death of Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni, whom Verdi greatly admired and had met in person. It wasn’t the first time Verdi had thought about a Requiem. Shortly after composer Gioachino Rossini’s death in 1868, Verdi, who highly cherished Rossini, attempted to organise a collective work, under the heading of Messa per Rossini, written by the most significant living Italian composers of the day and to be performed on the first anniversary of Rossini’s death. The project failed but Verdi wouldn’t allow his own contribution for the Messa per Rossini to be lost and so when Manzoni died and Verdi decided to compose a complete Requiem himself, he used it in the concluding movement Libera me.

Although it is set to the Latin text of the Mass for the Dead, I think that Verdi’s Requiem is not really religious. I totally agree with David Cairns’ excellent programme notes where he states the same and also says: “the Requiem [Verdi’s] is, among other things, the passionate protest of a man who rebels against the outrage that is death.” Still, whether one feels deeply touched in a religious sense depends, to my mind, whether one is a devout Christian – if yes, then it is a religious work to celebrate the glory of God and the belief in eternal life after death – but if not, it is still nearly impossible not to enjoy it for what it really is: A musical and dramatic masterpiece.

Verdi’s Requiem is a piece on a grandiose scale and from the start, the composer intended it to be performed in the concert hall; not the church. It isn’t an easy task for a conductor to obtain a perfect balance in a work of this might and I’m sorry to say that to my mind, Noseda didn’t quite achieve it and so the performance did not completely work for me. For one, the Barbican Hall is possibly too small for a work of this magnitude. The orchestra and chorus were sometimes too loud, overpowering the soloists. In my opinion the whole performance would have benefited from adapting it to the size of the Hall, tuning it down a little, making it quieter. I have often seen and heard Verdi’s Requiem – the latest, before this performance, just over a week ago at this year’s BBC Proms, under the magnificent baton of Marin Alsop; she delivered it full power but in an auditorium the size of the Royal Albert Hall it works perfectly. I must say that often conductors when faced with a smaller hall seldom achieve the best sound balance. This imbalance was mostly noticeable in this LSO performance when the trumpets on- and off-stage entered in the Dies irae. The brass instruments (especially the ones on stage) were so loud that they overpowered the chorus in some sections instead of carrying it to its full glory. On the other hand the Requiem’s opening cello line that leads to the entrance of the chorus (‘Requiem aeternam dona eis’) was beautifully judged, with well-controlled dynamics conveying the solemnity of the piece.

The soloists are then introduced with the Kyrie and in this instance Francesco Meli (tenor) was slightly out of tune and sounded very forced when he entered. He improved as the evening progressed and I enjoyed his performance though I heard comments from other people in the end that they thought Meli had been too flamboyant and that all that dramatic power suits the opera house but not a spiritual piece such as the Requiem. Perhaps, but personally I do enjoy the drama. Daniela Barcellona who is normally excellent and whom I’ve heard many times at the opera house was somehow not quite there. Perhaps her voice is a tad too low and rich for this piece but the truth is I had the impression she felt uncomfortable throughout. Erika Grimaldi was also a bit too forceful, especially in the high notes, and when singing with Barcellona in the Agnus Dei she sounded slightly out of tune. Michele Pertusi was the best of the four soloists. He was always perfectly in tune and his baritone is truly beautiful and warm but in this instance not sufficiently powerful. He lacked projection and was occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra and the chorus – I could see his mouth move but I couldn’t hear him, which led me to think that the part is probably better entrusted to a bass rather than a baritone, as the type of voice is naturally more sonorous. As a whole, the soloists were good though not completely convincing.

On the other hand, the London Symphony Chorus were excellent and the LSO magnificent, as ever. It is obvious they have a good rapport with Noseda but having heard the piece, as I mentioned above, at this year’s BBC Proms with Alsop and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on period instruments, I must say that these give Verdi’s Requiem a more pleasing texture – the sound is more open, subtler and clearer, which to me worked better than last night’s performance.

Having said all that the evening was still a very pleasant one. It was brave of Noseda to choose Verdi’s Requiem as the piece for the opening concert of the LSO’s 2016-17 season and apart from the small glitches I mentioned, it was a good, satisfying performance of a rather difficult piece.

Margarida Mota-Bull

For more about the London Symphony Orchestra and their concerts visit http://lso.co.uk/.

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