Prom 13 – Verdi’s Requiem makes its customary big impression

Verdi, Requiem (1873-4, rev. 1875): Marina Poplavskaya (soprano), Mariana Pentcheva (mezzo-soprano), Joseph Calleja (tenor), Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC National Chorus of Wales, London Philharmonic Choir, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Semyon Bychkov (conductor) Royal Albert Hall London 24.7.2011 (MMB)

Verdi wrote his Requiem in 1873-74 and conducted its première himself, at the Church of San Marco, in Milan, on 22nd May 1874, to mark the first anniversary of the death of his friend, the Italian writer, Alessandro Manzoni. It was not the first time that Verdi had thought about a Requiem. Shortly after composer Gioachino Rossini’s death in 1868, Verdi, who greatly admired 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 because, in Verdi’s own words[1]: “.. …failure was not the fault of the maestri destined to compose, but of others’ indifference or ill will”. So, when Manzoni died, Verdi decided to compose a complete Requiem himself. Interestingly, after some small modifications, he used his own contribution for the Messa per Rossini – the concluding movement Libera me – in the Requiem for Manzoni, as was rather well detailed in the exceptionally good programme notes, written by Daniela Macchione.

The name Requiem comes from the first line in the Latin Text of the Mass for the Dead, ‘Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine’ (‘Grant them eternal rest, O Lord’), which has often been set to music and naturally indicates that it is expected to be a religious work but Verdi’s Requiem, like Mozart’s before him, is really a work of great dramatic power and to my mind operatic in style, both in the use of the chorus and the orchestra, as well as some of the soloist parts. It is a grandiose musical piece and definitely much more suited for the large concert hall (like the Royal Albert Hall) than for a church. In the end, I think that its religious significance will depend on the individual’s personal beliefs. If one is a devout Christian, one probably feels that it is a religious work to celebrate the glory of God and the belief in eternal life after death. However, if one is an atheist, Verdi’s Requiem will still be loved because it is a musical and dramatic masterpiece.

For a composition of this grandeur and also for its length (it lasts 86 minutes), it made perfect sense to dedicate a whole Prom to the full performance of the work. And what a performance it turned out to be! To begin with we had three choirs, which meant approximately three hundred voices (give or take a few!): The BBC Symphony Chorus, the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the London Philharmonic Choir. They made quite an impression even before they started singing: it was rather imposing to watch row after row of the Royal Albert Hall choir section being filled up by men and women all strictly dressed in black and then, each moment, just before their part in the Requiem, the thunderous rustle of people standing up. The combined power of a large orchestra and of all these voices singing together, as the most famous section of Verdi’s Requiem, the ‘Dies irae’ (‘Day of Wrath’) first appears, is indescribable. One must be there and feel it cutting through one’s skin and sending shivers down one’s spine. It grabs you; it holds you in its relentless power, taking ownership of all your senses; when it finally releases you briefly for the wise words sung by the bass and then the mezzo, you feel strangely exhausted but also elated. Only grand music and great singing have such a power!

The performance of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the three Choirs, led by the expert and distinguished baton of Semyon Bychkov was simply magnificent. Technically, they were flawless and conductor Bychkov clearly understood and interpreted the score, I believe, in the manner which Verdi would have done himself: He unleashed the power of the orchestra and chorus whenever it was required but he kept both delicately in check for the most sensitive sections, giving us moments of intense beauty like in the ‘Sanctus’ and later, throughout ‘Libera me’, most particularly in the finale.

As for the four soloists, well, what can I say? We, the audience, were rewarded with a first class cast. Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya clearly demonstrated why she is currently in great demand both for opera and concert performances. Her voice has great flexibility and beauty of tone and she delivered her part with exceptional quality, combining a faultless technique with irreproachable dramatic skills. Her warmth and delicacy in her solo, the final ‘Libera me’, made it very moving, as well as solemn. I saw people around me with tears in their eyes, which is a tribute to Poplavskaya’s truly splendid performance.

Mariana Pentcheva was the mezzo-soprano who had to step in at the last minute, as the advertised singer, Sonia Ganassi, was forced to withdraw. Perhaps because of this she seemed to me a little insecure and there was a slight wobble in the upper register of her voice. Nevertheless, she carried it well and gave a worthy performance. Ferrucio Furlanetto did full justice to the score and demonstrated why he is one of the most sought-after, celebrated classic singers of our time. His warm, beautiful and sonorous bass filled up the hall, soaring above the orchestra, impeccably projecting the power of the music and the words. Of the four soloists, he was the one who felt obviously “at home” in this work, probably because he has sung it many times and recorded it twice before: In 1994 under the baton of Daniel Barenboim and in 2007 with the evening’s conductor, Semyon Bychkov. The fourth soloist was Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja who certainly lived up to the high expectations that preceded his appearance. Calleja has sung Verdi’s Requiem at the Proms before, namely in August 2008 under the baton of Jirí Belohlávek. He received critical acclaim then but, if at all possible, I think he was even better this time round. Calleja’s singing is not to everybody’s taste, as one of its most distinguishing characteristics is a very quick vibrato but I think that it is exactly this feature that gives his voice a unique quality, making it instantly recognisable. I do not know if he is a religious man or not but there appeared to be real devotion in his delivery of the text, especially during the Offertory when the tenor sings ‘Hostias et preces tibi, Domine’, (‘With sacrifice and prayer, O Lord’). His performance of his solo, the famous ‘Ingemisco tanquam reus’ (‘I groan as one guilty’), was superbly sung and ardently delivered. I think Calleja has greatly improved his diction and his phrasing: One can really hear the vowels with clarity whereas a few years back these sounded occasionally muffled, and his phrasing is now refined and elegant.

As you probably have already guessed, I truly loved this performance of Verdi’s Requiem. It was delivered with exceptional quality and with a touch of the “wow” factor, as any execution of a masterpiece should always be! The BBC was filming it for broadcast on BBC Four on Sunday, 21 st August at 19.30. Three words of advice: Don’t miss it!

Margarida Mota-Bull

 [1] Taken from Rossini, A Biography by Herbert Weinstock, Limelight Editions New York, 1987