Verdi’s Requiem Disappoints, but Stravinsky’s Pocket Requiem Hits the Mark

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Stravinsky: Jane Irwin  (soprano), Ildiko Komlosi  (mezzo-soprano), Dmtryo Popov (tenor), Vyacheslav Pochapsky (bass),  London Philharmonic Orchestra, LPO Choir, Orféon Pamplónes / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 24.1.2015 (GD)

Stravinsky: Requiem Canticles
Verdi: Requiem

After a rather slow, or dragging tempo, for the opening of Verdi’sRequiem, which is actually marked Andante, I remembered reading an eminent London critic who, writing in 1938 of a performance of the score by Arturo Toscanini with BBC forces, spoke of Toscanini’s ‘uncanny and inimitable control over orchestral dynamics and his conception of the whole line of the music’. Tonight this sense of ‘line’ was lacking on more than one occasion throughout the work. By the time we reached the first tenor entry of the Kyrie Jurowski’s tempo had increased to something more like an Andante. But this was not sustained, and Verdi’s sudden ppps after a crescendo hardly registered here. Again, of all the conductors I have heard in this work, it is Toscaini who proves himself to be the master of the  crescendo ppp.  A good example here is the ‘Dona eis, Domine’, and the sudden ppp which follows it. This first section is a good place to assess the quality of the four soloists, initiated by the tenor’s Kyrie. All I can say here is that the tenor and bass were adequate, turning in some good singing which never rose above the mere ‘good’. Soprano Jane Irwin was called in at the last minute to substitute for Maija Kovalevska who was ill. It didn’t seem to me her vocal range was a  match for some of the more demanding, dramatic parts in the Rex tremendae  and the Libera me. Also, for me, there was too much vocal vibrato. In the higher registers her voice became more shrill. Ildiko’s mezzo soprano, like the voices of the men, was quite adequate throughout.  To hear really great singing, singing that comes some way near to the greatness of the work, one would have to hear the likes of:Caniglia. Gigli. Pinza. Milanov, Bjorling, Thorborg, Di Stefano, Siepi and more recently; Leontyne Price, Gedda, Ghiaurov, Gheorghiu, and Alagna, and this is only to name a few!

The famous opening of the Dies Irae was quite impressive, with fine singing from the LPO Choir. Jurowski did not rush the initial four sforzato fff chords, thus producing a more sustained sense of menace. The much commented upon bass drum thwacks certainly sounded loud but they did not really match Verdi’s specific requirement. Verdi instructs that ‘the chords should be very taut so that the off-beats sound short and very loud’. Tonight these bass drum chords did not sound ‘taut’ enough, as though the skin was not drawn tight enough, thus producing a rather flabby sound. The Tuba mirum failed to make its full dramatic effect. This was partly due to the off-stage brass sounding  a tad flat; this certainly did not come anywhere near Verdi’s crescendo e sempre animando. No real ‘tutta forza’ here. To hear any of Toscanini’s recordings of the Tuba mirum is a frightening experience;  here it was merely loud. The same was applicable to Pochapsy’s bass. His Mors stupebit lacked the sepulchral tone heard in a bass like Ghiaurov.  The Quid sum miser went quite well, with some nice woodwind contributions.  The Rex tremendae,  marked  Adagio maestoso sounded dramatically powerful at this correct tempo, but it was a power not sustained at the shattering climax. Also there was no inevitable sense of leading into the Lo stresso tempo which introduces the duet for mezzo and soprano Recordare Jesu pie, which actually went quite well despite some strained moments from Miss Irwin. In fact much of the whole performance sounded in general sectional, rather than approaching anything like a coherent whole.  The Ingemisco and Confutatis  were well timed and contoured by Jurowski – his operatic reputation well in evidence. But again both were let down by rather routine singing. The concluding part of the Dies Irae, the Lacrymosa was well paced at the correct Largo marking. Especially notable was the bass drum figure coming through the vocal textures with real clarity. The coda’s beautifully poignant come un lamento threnody for strings alone sounded curiously bland.

 The Offertorium was taken rather slow hardly andante mosso! Tenor Dmtro’s Hostias was quite well sung, but to my ears he missed the hushed tone of wonder found with Jussi Bjorling and more recently Robert Alagna. And more surprisingly Jurowski failed to observe Verdi’s meticulous markings, especially, in the Hostias – the tremolando strings, their gradation of tone from ppp to pp and back were barely registered. The vocal quartet initiating Quam olim Abrahae, sang quite well and together. The Sanctus got off to a rough start with some quite messy ensemble in the brass. Jurowski took a peculiarly slow tempo here given the Allegro marking. This was probably the worse part of the performance, with untidy entries in the contrapuntal choral writing, and I could discern no real sense of rapport between orchestra and choir. The whole thing sounded very badly rehearsed. Again Arturo Toscanini proved to be Verdi’s sincere advocate here and throughout.

 The Lux Aeterna had a nice sense of flow, but much of Verdi’s superbly subtle orchestration, such as when the bass interpolates the text Requiem Aerternum over a dark chord of B flat minor roll on  timpani in fifths, was hardly audible!  The opening of the Lbera me with the soprano’s dramatic recitative-like declamations with chorus, failed to make much of an effect. Miss Irwin sounding vocally stretched How eloquently dramatic the likes of Milanov and Leontyne Price used to sound here! I should mention here that Orfeon Pamplones choir  blended well with the LPO choir. The second recapitulation of the Dies Irae ( its first intonation after the Confutatis  in the main Dies Irae) was somehow less dramatic than in its first incarnation, with some scrambled brass.

 After the recapitulation of the Requiem aeternum Jurowski played the closing fugal movement at quite a broad pace, although there is nothing to indicate a broad tempo in the score, which Verdi marks allegro risoluto. It was played quite incisively, but sounded somewhat laboured at this tempo. Toscanini always played this fugue in tempo with remarkable clarity in the orchestra complemented by the choir;  he always brought perfect clarity and drama to the important brass writing which cuts through contrapuntal choral textures emphasising the resolute hope of eternal deliverance and  life after the terrible day of divine judgement.  The moving pp, ppp coda sounded rather bland at a slower tempo. Again  Toscanini always ensured that the coda was a moving kind of threnody not separate but very much part of the preceding fugal chorus. Donald Tovey’s line about the  coda being as ‘near to Beethoven as anything so completely Italian could be’ must have struck a chord with Toscanini whose intense insight into Verdi’s genius sounds akin to seeing a great Michelangelo sculpture for the first time revealing something totally beyond words; something about the fate of humanity.

 The concert opened with Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles, a late work which he humorously called ‘a pocket Requiem’.  This kind of innovative programming is typical of Jurowski. The two works might seem poles apart.,But there are some links. the more so as Stravinsky had tremendous admiration for Verdi. The work comes from his late period where he was experimenting with serial techniques and 12 tone idioms. The work has headings from the main parts of the Requiem Mass with an Interlude and a Postlude. It deploys a largish orchestra a choir with parts for a  parts for mezzo and bass. and lasts approximately 15 minutes. Jurowski gave a finely considered rendition: his rhythms were sharp, and the many tonal, textural contrasts were handled with compelling confidence. The two soloists were fine, apart a little too much vibrato, especially from the bass. Stravinsky hated too much vibrato, but overall I think he would have warmly applauded tonight’s rendition.


Geoff Diggines


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