The Royal Choral Society Marks 140 Years of Singing

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Verdi, Requiem: Judith Howarth (soprano), Julia Riley (mezzo-soprano), Gwyn Hughes Jones (tenor) and Matthew Best (bass), Royal Choral Society, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Richard Cooke (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London 25.6.2012 (JPr)

Requiems seem to be for the journey to and from the grave or the arrival in another place through Heaven’s gates. The founder of the Royal Choral Society was Charles Gounod and his Requiem takes us on the path to the eternal light, with Fauré’s version we are already in the company of the angels – here with the Verdi Requiem we appear to be clinging fast onto life and only very reluctantly facing the inevitable. There are different ways to approach the Verdi Requiem; very reverently as befits the English choral tradition, or a more Italianate – operatic – approach. To be honest who can hear ‘Ingemisco’ without remembering Pavarotti singing this in his prime? With the massed ranks of the Royal Choral Society celebrating their 140th anniversary, four experienced British soloists, and a conductor who is music director of the RCS, I suspected when I sat down in my seat in the Royal Albert Hall that it would the former interpretation we would hear. To be honest – and despite a number of distracting issues I will comment on – this preconception was ill-founded.

Performed like this it is probable that those who claim this Requiem is not entirely a sacred work – but as Hans von Bülow described it ‘Verdi’s latest opera, in church vestments’ – are not far off the mark.  It all sounded very theatrical even though there is lots in it about the fear of pain and death that the agnostic Verdi knew about more than most. It was written in 1873 when the Italian poet, novelist and national hero Alessandro Manzoni died. Verdi had been a lifelong admirer and was deeply affected by his death. Also Verdi had lost his first wife and two infant children while only in his twenties. Nevertheless the highly dramatic writing, given an unusually full-blooded performance from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, brought us off-cuts of Otello and Aida more than once – and this cannot be a surprise as Verdi composed the Requiem shortly after the latter, an opera full of ritual and sacred music, and before the former, with its stormy opening and reflective Act IV.

Even in the expanse of the Royal Albert Hall it is clear that the vast chorus was the focus for the majority of the audience, all keenly supporting their family members or friends. And quite right too as they were the real stars of the evening. The quiet opening to ‘Requiem aeternam’ came across with penetrating richness. During Verdi’s ferocious setting of the ‘Dies irae’ the chorus sang with a vehemence that was never harsh. The ‘wall of sound’ here and in the ‘Tuba mirum’ was stunning. In the ‘outburst of joy’ that is the ‘Sanctus’ the choir sang their fugal lines with clarity, energy, and impressive diction (that is a hallmark of the Royal Choral Society). At the end as the consoling chords of ‘Libera me’ faded away allowing a few quiet moments, the choristers, orchestra, conductor and soloists got the ovation they probably deserved.

Why probably? Well after some praise comes the criticism. What was the RCS thinking of by putting an interval in Verdi’s Requiem? Though this is from someone who was forced to put an interval in Wagner’s Das Rheingold when I staged it once in Leicester! The are no musical reasons for this and it can only have been acquiescence to the Royal Albert Hall conditions of hire or the need to allow time to collect money for the worthy cause (Nordoff Robbins) to which some of the net profits would be going. At the slightest pause latecomers were allowed in, and I have never seen so much drinking in the auditorium for a Verdi Requiem since the first time I heard this piece in the Roman amphitheatre at Verona to the added sound effects of tumbling wine and beer bottles. Also why print a programme with an English translation and not have the house lights up sufficiently for anyone to read it?

Enough carping: on the plus side there were some formidable voices in this quartet of singers. They were easily able to fill the Royal Albert Hall with their sound – without any amplification as far as I could see. The young mezzo, Julia Riley, sang gloriously without seeming effort, her phrasing was always very good and she blended with her soprano colleague, Judith Howarth, in the ‘Agnus Dei’ particularly sensitively. Ms Howarth, had a strong dramatic presence and if at certain moments (the taxing ‘Libera me’ especially) she was under the pitch just enough to notice, it was never enough to interfere with her general sturdiness and assurance. The tenor, Gwyn Hughes Jones, sang with considerable Italianate ease and lyricism but he was a little too laidback about it all for me. Matthew Best’s bass voice is generally one of the most reliable there is but it let him down on this occasion; very gravely before the interval when an announcement was made that he had a ‘throat infection’, things were a bit better afterwards but he never looked – or sounded – happy on the platform. It was clearly an ‘off night’ and I am happier to remember him for his recent very poignant portrayal of King Marke for Welsh National Opera.

The conductor, Richard Cooke, is clearly an outstanding choral trainer, the forces in front of him were well-balanced, and he managed to keep a tight rein on their contribution, as well as on those of the orchestra and soloists. His conducting was incisive and did not lack detail but I felt he might have just hurried things along a bit more than he did, he dwelt a little too much on beauty of sound rather than forward momentum. It is the nature of one-off performances like this that the orchestra will not have many rehearsals with conductor and choir but even though they misjudged the ppp whispers needed in the opening phrases, all concerned soon got into their stride. The brass, with extra trumpeters positioned on either side of the stalls, was bright or portentous by turns and the strings sounded very good. Special mention should be made for Andrew Barclay (I believe it was) who constantly assaulted the bass drum with relish to ensure ‘Dies irae’ and similar moments were as exhilaratingly brutal and fearsome as the composer wanted.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the Royal Choral Society and their forthcoming performances visit