United Kingdom Verdi, Requiem: Soloists, Sheffield Cathedral Choir, Northern Chamber Orchestra / Alan Eost (conductor), Sheffield Cathedral, 8.11.2014 (JRK)
Classical music in Sheffield suffers from a lack of a good concert venue. There is the City Hall, a 19th century building with a strange and strained acoustic. There is the oddly effective Crucible studio whose lack of natural light and presentations in the round create a memorable effect but only to a small audience. But on Saturday 8th November a new building appeared!
Actually it is a very old building but the cathedral has been extensively renovated and, in honour of Remembrance weekend, saw a performance of the Verdi Requiem. I had attended a performance of Britten’s War Requiem in Sheffield City Hall last December where the fine playing and singing were hampered mainly by the venue. But the wonderfully renovated cathedral was an ideal setting for the Verdi.
The cathedral choir gave a fine account of themselves and were happy to let rip during the famous Dies Irae passages and made the old, newly cleaned, stones resonate throughout the building. The Northern Chamber Orchestra played as well as they could but made a very odd sound. Against the heavy brass and full choir, having a string desk line-up of 3,3,3,2,1 meant that the violins were largely inaudible even as near to the front as the VIPs on row 4. The beautiful counter melodies that Verdi composed for the violins in the Sanctus disappeared and even the thrilling, descending passage in the Dies Irae sounded oddly muted.
Conducting a 140-strong choir, 4 soloists and a chamber orchestra presents problems to the best of directors. Players notice that conductors in these circumstances fall into roughly two categories. There are those, like David Willcocks, who direct the choir in the hope that the professional instrumentalists will follow. And there are those, like Jascha Horenstein, who conducted the orchestra and whose charismatic presence inspired he choir to follow. Alan Eost is very much in the first category. His peculiar stance, permanently bent over as if peering into the score, and jerking two-handed baton-led beat, was obviously difficult to follow by the orchestra in some passages. At the end of the first appearance of the Dies Irae, his jerks – perhaps inadvertently, slowed. The choir, probably unaware that he was going to slow, carried on whilst the brass gallantly attempted to follow his beat. Fortunately, at every other appearance of the Dies Irae, orchestra and choir stayed together irrespective of the conductor.
The stars of the show were the soloists. Four fine singers were led by the mezzo, Margaret McDonald, Verdi gives the mezzo the lead in every movement except the final Libera Me where the soprano, Debra Morley, gave an emotionally charged performance. But the finest moments were those where the two female soloists sang the Agnus Dei. Their beautiful presentation was characterised by the way they moderated their voices to create an impression of a single voice. I would have to come to the performance just to hear the wonderful Margaret McDonald. But I enjoyed the unrestrained singing of the choir and hoped that the newly-restored cathedral would become the venue for more large-scale performances.
Joseph Ray Kovaks