Dramatic and Reverential Verdi Opens Andris Nelson’s New CBSO Season

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Verdi, Requiem: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with Andris Nelsons (Conductor), CBSO Chorus (Chorus Master – Julian Wilkins) and Soloists, Kristine Opolais (Soprano),  Mihoko Fujimura (Mezzo) , Pavel Černoch (Tenor) & Jan Martinik (Bass) Birmingham Symphony Hall, 22.9.2011 (GR).

Kristine Opolais Photo: Marco Borggreve

What better way to begin the 2011/12 CBSO season than with Verdi’s Requiem? It is not surprising that the work, an intoxicating cocktail of dramatic theatricality and reverential existentialism, is a favourite of conductor Andris Nelsons. On a CBSO video link, Nelsons emphasised how whilst conveying the meaning of the text the chorus becomes musically and emotionally involved in the piece. If anyone can inspire a choir to thus engage, Nelsons is the man for the job; the CBSO Chorus have the necessary ammunition. Indeed the choir were top of the bill, despite the range of moods created by the CBSO itself and an international line-up of soloists. Recent concerts have proved the versatility of the CBSO Chorus, equally at home with Mahler (last season’s Mahler cycle) and Prokofiev (this year’s Nevsky Prom). For this Messa de Requiem they were under the direction of Associate conductor Julian Wilkins. Continuity lies behind every good choir and this one is no exception: credited in the programme with over 30 years’ membership were Valerie Matthews, Hazel Hughes, Medina Cole, Sarah Ennis, Kath Campbell, Alison Bownass, Phillip Rawle and Andrew Packer.

I’m not sure how many pounds Nelsons lost during the evening; giving his all as ever it must have been considerable. What is it about the energy levels of conductors? This maestro was still pumped up after an uninterrupted ninety minutes! Leading by example, the infectious enthusiasm he has provided throughout his three completed seasons in Birmingham, he once again motivated those under his baton. He made the music of Verdi’s memorial to his political idol Alessandro Manzoni fit the words, ensuring that the required emphasis came across, whether from orchestra, choir or soloist. Testament to this was the opening Requiem Aeternam, the gentle supplications of orchestra and chorus on wavelengths from the same hymn sheet. The Kyrie eleison gave us our first taste of the soloists, with tenor Pavel Černoch leading the way. This was his second appearance in Birmingham having sung Rodolfo in a concert performance of Puccini’s La Bohème (see www.musicweb-international.com/SandH/2008/Jul-Dec08/boheme2310.htm). Three year ago he failed to make a great impression and looking this time for some improvement in the young Czech, I was a little disappointed. Whilst his contributions in the ensemble sections were up to speed, I thought his solos lacked some conviction.

As the final chords of the Gradual died away, Nelsons timed the transition to the second section and the Dies Irae to perfection. Although you knew it was coming, the opening blasts from the orchestra and choir were nevertheless startling and ferocious. The thunderbolt beats of percussionists Peter Hill and Adrian Spillett carried a health warning as Verdi’s Day of Judgement was angrily thrust upon us. The brass section of the CBSO was in fine form during the subsequent Tuba mirum with the cimbasso of Graham Sibley and the off-stage trumpets well to the fore. Nelsons’ control was absolute; silence descended to herald a vision of death in Mors stupebit from bass Jan Martinik. Still under 30, this Czech finalist in the 2009 Cardiff Singer of the World and winner of the Song Prize, had good tone, poise and authority, and a dignity to match the gravity of the text. Next on her feet was Mihoko Fujimura in Liber scriptus explaining how the world would be judged. Better known in Germany and for her Wagnerian roles (somewhat surprising for someone with such a diminutive frame) the Japanese mezzo delivered some velvet notes, but the light and shade required in this beautiful section principally came from the orchestra and chorus; the hushed accompaniment to the repeated Nil was breathtaking. Likewise as Fujimura asked Quid sum miser I found myself concentrating on the bassoon obbligato of Gretha Tuls. But focus on the vocalists was secure when soprano Kristine Opolais joined Fujimura for their Recordare duet. The whole woodwind section of the CBSO provided the necessary pleading and splendidly carried Černoch through his Ingemisco tamquam reus, while the oboe of Rainer Gibbons was a sonorous appeal for mercy on this particular sinner. I thought Martinik’s Confutatis lacked some of the passion I have heard elsewhere, something not lacking in the subsequent Dies Irae. Verdi was never one to let go of a good tune, and a variation of the previous themes emerged during the quartet Lacrimosa dies illa, the best contribution from the soloists thus far.

The Offertorio demonstrated two of Verdi’s best traits – great melodies and exquisite ensemble arrangements. The cellos led by Ulrich Heinen got the section off to splendid start before the trio of Fujimura, Černoch and Martinik prayed for deliverance. The single extended note entry of Opolais was a peak moment in both senses of the word. On this evidence it was beginning to seem that the combinations of the singers were greater than the sum of their individual parts. Although only separated by a major third, the seven-note theme begun by the tenor on Hostias, to which the other three responded was a sublime rendition. All this, together with the sympathetic handling of the closing orchestral coda by Nelsons, made this a magnificent oblation.

The high jinks generated in the Sanctus provided a stark contrast. Who other than Verdi could glorify God in such an off-to-the-races way? The off-stage trumpets rang out in celebration to initiate the enthusiastic double-fugue from the CBSO choir. Nelsons clearly enjoyed it, as did we all!

Devoid of accompaniment, Opolais and Fujimura gave a delightful opening to the andante tune of the Agnes Dei. Sung in octaves, they invoked a mood of eternal rest. As choir and orchestra added to the harmony, the flutes of Marie-Christine Zupancic and Colin Lilley (was there a third?) contributed some fluent counterpoint.Of the three lower soloists featured in the Lux Aeterna, I thought Martinik acquitted himself well. But again it was the orchestral playing of the CBSO that stole the show – the tremolo playing of the strings and the piccolo of Andrew Lane.

The final Libera Me movement belonged to Opolais. Who else could Nelsons have chosen for the soprano role in this Requiem? The strides Opolais has made since her first appearance in Birmingham (when she excelled as Mimi in the concert performance referred to above) have been deservedly meteoric. When your latest role (Rusalka at the Munich Festival) is captured on the front cover of Opera, you know you have arrived. Here is a soprano equally at home on both the concert and opera stage. All her vocal and dramatic attributes shone forth in the Responsory: purity of tone, extensive and even range, lustrous colours and meaningful communication. One line summed her performance up – quando coeli movendi sunt et terra (when the heavens and the earth are moved); we were moved. At Tremens factus, the fragility in her voice portrayed that of a sinner trembling at the seat of judgement – this hair-tingling moment intensified by the sheer force of the final repeat of the Dies Irae. The wave of sound dissolved into Requiem Aeternam. The final bars were equally poignant as Opolais soared above it all – surely this was one soul who would be saved.

What a send off Verdi composed for Manzoni. At the time, Wagnerian Han von Bülow jibed that it was ‘an opera in ecclesiastical dress’ words that must have later haunted him. The performance of Nelsons and company, with the Chorus and Opolais outstanding, gave us one hell of a wake!

Geoff Read