United Kingdom Verdi Requiem: Hibla Gerzmava (soprano); Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo (mezzo); Joseph Calleja (tenor); Carlo Colombara (bass); Chorus & Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecila/Sir Antonio Pappano. Royal Festival Hall, London, 18.5.2014 (CC)
Around a year ago, Daniele Gatti conducted this work with the Philharmonia at this very venue (review). Both Gatti and Pappano have this music in their blood; the two concerts even shared a soloist: Carlo Colombara, of whom more later. Both conductors have an ability to see the piece as a whole while honouring the drama of the moment.
Somehow, though, it was Pappano who got closer to the heart of the piece. The chorus, visually, seemed small for a piece of these dimensions and scope. It was clear that the dynamic range was going to be wide from the opening, hushed string statements verging on the inaudible yet perfectly controlled; the chorus matched the dynamic beautifully. At the other end of the scale came the almighty ‘Dies Irae’. The choral size was perfectly planned: there was no loss in force, and every gain in detail, even in the fearsome fortissimi and beyond. Space, too, was utilised to fullest advantage, with brass fanfares echoing and bouncing around the hall. This was the perfect integration of spectacle, gesture and heartfelt outpouring. Choral detail was preternaturally focused, nowhere more so than in the lightness of the ‘Sanctus’.
Pappano’s speeds were clearly carefully considered, lending a feeling of overarching cogency to the performance. His experience in the opera house gave him a deep understanding not only of the drama of the piece but also of how Verdi’s statement of faith expresses itself via tropes that are linked directly to operatic gesture. In some sense, therefore, it felt as if Pappano was presenting the very essence of Verdi.
The performance was blessed with a sterling line-up of soloists. Hibla Gerzmava’s soprano voice was capable of blinding radiance (in the ‘Offertorium’, for example) yet also delivered full-headlight intensity (‘Libera me’). In a late substitution, dramatic mezzo Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo stood in for an indisposed Ekaterina Semenchuk. Initial reactions were that here was someone who was clearly experienced, but perhaps not the equal of her peers. As the performance progressed and she found herself ever more swept along, that was erased and she melded beautifully into the vocal quartet of soloists.
Carlo Colombara seemed decidedly less black of voice than a year ago but hardly less impressive: his top register was in beautiful shape, but the depth of his lower register was markedly different. The impact of ‘Mors stupebit’ was accordingly different; less terminal this time, more part of an onward spiritual journey. The clear star of the line-up was Joseph Calleja, whose strong but beautiful voice was never forced, whose phrasing always felt right and spontaneous. His golden tone illuminated the ‘Ingemisco’, an eloquent and heartrending cry for forgiveness from the Almighty for his sins. His ‘Hostias’ was impeccably sweet toned.
This was a notable performance, orchestrally superb, chorally magnificent and impeccably judged by Pappano. The audience, curiously, took a while to settle down – perhaps it was the early start on a sunny Sunday afternoon that gave rise to such restlessness. But the performance sucked the fidgeters in, and by the end the magic was complete. The ovation was richly deserved.