Welsh Demonstrate Italianate Passion in Powerful Verdi Requiem

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Requiem: Rebecca Evans (soprano), Ceri Williams (mezzo), John Pierce (tenor), Alastair Miles (bass), BBC National Chorus of Wales, National Youth Choir of Wales, Cardiff Ardwyn Singers, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Owain Arwel Hughes (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 01.03.2013 (GPu)

Writing as a Yorkshireman whose work brought him to South Wales some 40 years ago, one of the things I have always found fascinating and delightful about my adopted home is the strong Italian presence in the life of the area. The descendants of the Italian immigrants who came to South Wales in the nineteenth century have managed both to retain a degree of ‘Italian’ identity and to integrate into Welsh life at many levels. Their contribution has been (and is) impressive in many areas. Most noticeably, and continuing the tradition established by some of the first immigrants, the Italian presence is very obvious in the cafes, restaurant, fish and chip shops and ice-cream parlours of South Wales. Establishments within walking distance of my house in Swansea include the (outstanding) Verdi’s Ice-Cream Parlour (European friends insist on making return trips there) and Mario’s Fish Bar. The quality and number of Italian restaurants in the area is well above the British average, as far as I can see.

Or, take sport, where Welsh Italians include the boxers Joe Calzaghe and Enzo Maccarinelli and a number of Welsh rugby internationals, notably the brothers Robert and Peter Sidoli. They are prominent in the arts too, where their number includes the painters Andrew Viccari and David Carpanini, the rock and blues guitarist Pino Palladino and the actor Victor Spinetti. I believe that the singer Sara Fulgoni is another of Welsh Italian descent. The largest number of the original Italian immigrants (there is a lively account of the whole phenomenon in Colin Hughes’ book Lime, Lemon & Sarsparilla: The Italian Community in South Wales, 1881-1945, published in 1991) came from the area around Parma, especially the commune of Bardi some thirty miles south west of Parma. Many have been tempted into the suggestion that there are temperamental affinities between the Welsh and the Italians.

The English journalist and broadcaster René Cutforth, supposedly described the Welsh as “Italians in the rain” (though I haven’t been able to locate the precise source of the phrase. In the commentary to his 1971 film Wales: The Western Stronghold he more than once makes a comparison with Spain). Such assertions (however valid they might seem at an impressionistic level) doubtless leave much to be desired sociologically or anthropologically. Yet, ever since I first started attending concerts in South Wales, I have been repeatedly struck by how well Welsh orchestras and choirs play and sing Italian music, in a manner free of the inhibitions which often seem to hamper some non-Italian interpreters. I dare say it is no more than a coincidence that so many Welsh Italian families had their origins in the same province that saw the birth of Verdi and it isn’t, obviously, a coincidence onto which I would want to project any pattern of cause and effect if I say that time and again I have found decidedly Italianate qualities in ‘Welsh’ performances of Verdi’s music. Certainly this St. David’s Day performance of Verdi’s Requiem had an Italianate passion and intensity throughout. (St David is the patron saint of Wales – Ed)

Owain Arwel Hughes is essentially a conductor whose work speaks more of emotional empathy than of intellectual analysis and this is clearly a work which means a lot to him. He conducts expansively and with a healthily broad emotional brush and encourages (without any loss of discipline) wholeheartedly expressive singing and playing. Though his podium manner is not flamboyant, Owain Arwel Hughes brings a strong sense of musical drama to his conducting. And, that, of course suits this work perfectly. His clear beat serves the driving rhythms of Verdi’s Dies Irae very well and he relishes the startling contrasts in the work, though he doesn’t treat them over indulgently. The frequently made suggestion that Verdi’s Requiem is not in truth “a work of Christian feeling” seems most often to be made by non Christians and certainly by those not themselves Italian Catholics. It is true enough that Verdi essentially responds to the imagery and the emotions of the text, rather than its theology. But if he was not a man of profound personal faith he was (as the great achievement of his operas amply demonstrates) a man who thoroughly understood human sinfulness, human hopes and fears and the range of human responses to the inalienable fact of death and knew (to the ultimate degree) how to express such matters musically.

Three of the four soloists under Hughes’ direction were Welsh, the exception being the experienced bass Alastair Miles. All four made impressive contributions. Mezzo Ceri Williams is heard all too rarely by audiences in her native land; since 2002 she has lived in Germany, working first at the National Theatre Mannheim and then at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Some readers will have heard her work on Sir Mark Elder’s recordings of Die Walküre and Götterdämerung. Her extensive operatic experience was evident and well-suited to Hughes’ reading of the Requiem. Her ‘Liber scriptus proferetur’ had a dignified authority which carried a deal of emotional and dramatic weight and she coped admirably with the considerable range of the piece, while her vocal interplay, first with Pierce and Evans in ‘Quid dum miser tunc, dicturus’ and then with Evans in the ‘Ricordare, Jesu pi’ was sensitively intelligent. Rebecca Evans seems nowadays to have the occasional moment of uncertainty or instability of pitch, but any such blemishes are a minor affair, weighed in the scales against the intensity and perceptiveness which largely characterises her work. Some soaring top notes were memorable. There is an authentcity and commitment to all that she does. The third Welsh singer, tenor John Pierce sang as well as I have ever heard him do. His performance of ‘Ingemisco tamquam reus’ (one of the most ‘operatic’ pieces in the whole work) was beautifully lyrical and expressive. Alastair Miles’ powerful reading of ‘Mors stupebit’, full of quiet but firm awe and terror will long remain in the memory.

Alongside four accomplished soloists, the three choirs assembled gave equally accomplished and committed performances, vital as they are to any sense of the work’s scale and universality. Whether in the declamations of the ‘Dies Irae’ or in the whispered petition of the opening ‘Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine’ the standard of choral work was every bit as high as one has come to expect in Wales. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales was rich and technically assured in its response to the fierce dynamic contrasts of the work – spine-tingling and hair-raising in the ‘Dies Irae’, full of hushed beauty in the opening pages.

Before this performance I listened, in the last few days, to three of my favourite recordings of the Requiem all conducted by Italians – those of Tullio Serafin (from 1939), of Riccardo Muti (in 1989) and of Claudio Abbado (from 2001). That this version didn’t come as a serious disappointment or anti-climax after such a preparation is, of itself, a tribute to all concerned – conductor, a well-integrated team of soloists, choral singers and orchestra. A friend I bumped into on the way out of the hall said to me “that’s a work that never fails to hit the spot”. I can’t quite agree; I have heard performances that fail to carry their audience with them; but this one certainly did – another resounding ‘Welsh-Italian’ success.

Glyn Pursglove