The Royal Choral Society’s 140th Anniversary Concert

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

I wonder how many performances of Verdi’s Requiem have been given in the UK since it was first heard here in 1875. Many hundreds, I’m sure; probably thousands. It is the Royal Choral Society that had the distinction of singing Verdi’s masterpiece in the UK for the very first time with the composer himself on the rostrum so it was entirely fitting that the choir should sing the work as the climax to their 140th anniversary season and in the same hall in which a British audience heard it for the first time.

The performance began impressively. Richard Cooke drew some hushed and disciplined singing and playing respectively from his choir and from the LPO. The ‘Dies irae’ was launched with vigour and the two offstage trumpets, placed on either side of the hall in the loggia boxes, made a good effect along with their orchestral colleagues in the ‘Tuba mirum’. Mr Cooke ensured the ‘Rex tremendae’ was grand and impressive although a little earlier I thought his tempo for the ‘Quid sum miser’ made the music sound just a little matter of fact – the only time in the performance that I was uneasy about any of his choices of tempo. However, the performance was going well, with good contributions from the soloists.

Alas! It had been decided to have an interval after the ‘Dies irae’. Quite why this was thought to be a sensible decision is beyond me; after all, the whole work only plays for about 90 minutes. I cannot recall hearing or taking part in a performance of this work that was broken up in this way. I’m afraid the decision was a mistake. By the time the audience had reassembled the interval had stretched to over 25 minutes and all the atmosphere and momentum in the performance had been dissipated: in effect, we had to start again from scratch. In all honesty, thereafter the performance, though good, didn’t really re-ignite until the reprise of the ‘Dies irae’ music in the final ‘Libera me’ movement. In the ‘Libera me’ the extended unaccompanied section was well sung by the choir and they delivered the fugal section with spirit. They’d also made a good job of the Sanctus and, indeed, throughout the performance the choir offered a lot of good, controlled singing. My only surprise was that a choir of over 200 didn’t make more noise in the loud sections of the work; it didn’t seem as if they were letting go sufficiently.

It would not be fair to comment in detail on the contribution of Matthew Best. At the interval it was announced that he was suffering with a throat infection but that he would complete the performance. Unsurprisingly, it was clear that he was husbanding his vocal resources carefully in the second half. I must say, however, that prior to the announcement there hadn’t been much hint of an indisposition; for example, he sang the ‘Oro supplex’ with good firm tone. Julia Riley did some good work, as did Judith Howarth, though in the ‘Libera me’ I had the impression that sometimes Miss Howarth was pushing her voice a little too much in the large acoustic.  Gwyn Hughes-Jones produced suitably Italianate tenor sounds and floated the ‘Hostias’ as well as is probably possible in such a large hall.

It’s a very long time since I’ve attended a concert at the Royal Albert Hall and I’m afraid that some things about front of house organisation rather took me aback. A number of latecomers were admitted with the inevitable disruption. Unfortunately the staff decided that the opportune time to do this was as Matthew Best was starting the ‘Mors stupebit’, one of the quietest passages in the work! In fairness to the latecomers, it can’t have been easy to find their seats since all the auditorium lighting had been switched off. One wonders why the RCS had gone to the trouble of printing the text and translation in the programmes since no one who wanted or needed to follow along would have been able to do so in the darkness. Another great surprise was that members of the audience were allowed to bring drinks into the auditorium both at the start and after the interval. The man sitting next to me finished his pre-concert glass of wine during the ‘Rex tremendae’! I can think of no other serious concert hall where this would be allowed, still less the taking of photographs during the performance by audience members using their smart phones – at least none of the phones rang during the performance!

Of course, all these issues were outside the control of the Royal Choral Society but it’s a pity that there were such distractions from their performance, especially at such a significant concert in their history. It was a good performance overall but not one, I’m afraid, that moved me in the way that a reading of this highly dramatic masterpiece should ideally do.

John Quinn