Czech Republic Verdi, Requiem Simone Schneider (soprano), Gerhild Romberger (mezzo-soprano), Pavel Černoch (tenor), John Relyea (bass), Prague Philharmonic Choir, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Manfred Honeck (conductor), Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, 9.4.2014 (JQ)
On my first-ever visit to Prague the opportunity to hear the Czech Philharmonic playing in the hall which is their home was too good to miss. The Rudolfinum was opened in 1885 and the orchestra first played in the Dvořák Hall – under Dvořák’s baton – in 1896. I’ve heard numerous recordings that the orchestra has set down in the hall over the years for Supraphon but experiencing the hall for myself was something of a revelation.
I was mildly surprised that the Dvořák Hall is not as large as I’d expected. I don’t know what the seating capacity is but I suspect it’s just over 1000. The front row of the tiered stalls is very close indeed to the stage – probably uncomfortably close – but my seat in row 12 was excellently placed to give me an excellent perspective on what was happening on the platform yet I was close enough to feel really involved. Perhaps the greatest surprise was that the stage seemed relatively small. Verdi’s orchestral forces for this work are large but not as extensive as those required, say, for Mahler yet the orchestra filled the platform. The Prague Philharmonic Choir numbered about 80 singers on this occasion. They were placed above the orchestra and behind them on the benches around the large organ casing. I doubt whether a larger choir could have been accommodated. One is accustomed to hearing bigger choirs in this work but since this particular choir comprises professional singers there was no difficulty in hearing them as they projected out and over the orchestra. The soloists were placed with the choir, right in the centre and immediately in front of the organ. As a result, their sound was not quite as immediate as would have been the case had they been placed next to the conductor’s rostrum, as is more commonly done. However, the solo lines were projected with great clarity; there was no difficulty in hearing them and I rather liked the fact that the quartet was placed with the other singers. The fact that the singers, both choir and soloists, could be heard comfortably above the orchestra reflected the excellence of the hall’s acoustics and also the great skill with which Manfred Honeck balanced the performance.
I’ve read many good things about Honeck; he’s made a number of successful London appearances in recent years and he’s also set down some highly-regarded recordings with the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra. He’s been the Music Director of that American orchestra since the 2008/9 season – I think he succeeded Mariss Jansons – and his latest contract extension will take his tenure to the 2019/20 season. On the evidence of this performance I can see why they’re so keen to keep him in Pittsburgh.
One of his decisions inclined me favourably before even a note had been played. The violins were divided to the left and right of the podium. In my experience this is a most unusual disposition in this particular piece but, my goodness, it worked well and I found myself noticing not only details in the violin parts that are usually masked but also in the viola part. The cellos were arranged to the conductor’s left, where the second violins usually sit, and this, too, paid dividends as we had the cellos and violas at the heart of the orchestra. At the start of the ‘Offertorium’ it was wonderful to hear the unison cello melody coming from the centre of the orchestra and played with unanimity and rich, nutty tone. The eight double basses were ranged in a line at the back of the orchestra. I wasn’t so sure that this worked quite as well; the string bass sound didn’t always seem to register as firmly as I’d have liked.
The orchestral playing was magnificent throughout. When Honeck let the players off the leash in the loud passages, such as the ‘Tuba mirum’, the sound was full and thrilling. However, what impressed me most deeply of all was the orchestra’s quiet playing. The very opening of the work was feather-light, the string players seeming almost to breathe the notes, while the quiet end to the ‘Offertorium’ was magically hushed. Throughout the evening the soft playing by all sections of the orchestra was wonderfully refined yet, hushed though the pianissimi were, they always had weight.
The choral contribution was distinguished. The big moments, such as the opening of the ‘Dies Irae’ and each subsequent reappearance of that material, were truly thrilling – the final appearance of the ‘Dies Irae’, in the last movement was absolutely scalding from both choir and orchestra. Equally impressive were the tumultuous ‘Tuba mirum’, the magisterial ‘Rex tremendae’ and the expertly judged long unaccompanied passage in the ‘Libera me’. However, if I had to pick just one passage that showed the excellence of the Prague Philharmonic Choir it would be the ‘Sanctus’. Here every dynamic detail, every accent was scrupulously observed and it was quite marvellous to hear Verdi’s intentions realised so completely and expertly. Throughout the evening the choir was totally responsive to Honeck’s direction: clearly they had been expertly prepared by their chorus master, Lukáš Vasilek.
The soloists made a strong team. Simone Schneider offered a gleaming soprano voice that was well suited to this role. She and Gerhild Romberger were well-matched in the ‘Recordare’ and in the ‘Agnus Dei’. Miss Schneider’s tone often had an appropriate dramatic edge – as in some biting passages in the ‘Libera me’ – but she could also float beautifully the soft, lyrical passages such as the unaccompanied section with the chorus in the ‘Libera me’; what a pity that she didn’t sustain the final note in this passage right to the end. Gerhild Romberger sang with a rich, full tone and with fine commitment. She is a true mezzo with an excellent lower register and a strong top to the voice. It was a pity that occasionally she gave the impression of attacking notes from underneath but overall I was impressed by her singing.
Pavel Černoch made an excellent impression. His voice has a good, clear ring to it and he did not overdo the emotion as some tenors are wont to do in this work. I admired the strength in his voice but even more I appreciated the lyrical line that he brought to ‘Inter oves’ and the gentle plangency with which he floated the ‘Hostias’. John Relyea gave the solo quartet the firmest of foundations. He could be imposing when required – at the start of ‘Confutatis’ for instance – but then, just a few bars later, he showed another side of his artistry by fining back his big voice and investing ‘Oro supplex’ with a marvellously smooth legato.
Manfred Honeck’s conducting was wholly convincing. He certainly brought out the dramatic side of the work but at the same time he ensured that the many lyrical and reflective passages received their proper due. There were a couple of instances when a particularly urgent tempo took me slightly aback but these were few and far between. He was clearly in complete command of every detail of the score and just as strongly in command of the big picture. At the end he deliberately – and very rightly – ensured that an extended silence followed the last, hushed chord. Within minutes the entire audience, which had been absorbed and completely attentive throughout, was on its feet to show their appreciation of a thrilling and moving performance of Verdi’s great score.