The Monastery’s Acoustics and Hard Walls Marred the Appreciation on the Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi: Soloists, St. George’s Singers with the Sheffield Chorale, Stockport Symphony Orchestra / Neil Taylor (conductor). Manchester Monsatery, 25.6.2017. (RJF)

Verdi – Messa da Requiem

Rachel Nicholls (soprano)
Joyce Tindsley (mezzo-soprano)
Matthew Minter (tenor)
Colin Campbell (baritone)

Set within the east Manchester area of Gorton, home to industrial giants of the time such as Beyer Peacock whose distinctive railway locomotives powered the British Empire, the Monastery was built by the Franciscan Order between 1863 and 1871. The building followed the Friars arrival in Manchester in 1861 to serve the local Catholic community. Designed by Edward Pugin, whose father had been involved in the design the Houses of Parliament, this magnificent building (see site) fell into disrepair and was subject to substantial vandalism and pillage in the 1970s. It was placed on the World Monuments Fund Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World in 1997, alongside the likes of Pompeii, Macchu Picchu, The Valley of the Kings and the Taj Mahal. Following a 12-year fundraising campaign a total of £6.5m was raised with many of the original artefacts and decorative features being rescued from auction and by good fortune. The Monastery is Grade II* listed and has a very individual sense of grandeur and makes an ideal venue for musical, particularly choral, performances albeit the resonant acoustic can be challenging.

Of all choral works in the repertoire Verdi’s Messa da Requiem might be seen as ideal repertoire for the renewed Monastery building, in all its current magnificence, as representing the agnosticism of the composer and the religious purpose of the music. A complex personality, Verdi could be irascible and stubborn, but also immensely compassionate when faced by the needs of others as well as fiercely loyal to those he revered. Along with Rossini, the Italian he most revered and idolized was Alessandro Manzoni, the author of the novel I Promessi Sposi that he had read age sixteen and to which he attributed the formalisation of the unified Italy’s language. At the death of Rossini in 1868 Verdi had attempted to get the Italian composers of the day to combine in a Requiem in his memory with he himself writing the libera me; his idea was never fully realised.

When Manzoni died in May 1873, after a fall, Verdi was devastated to the extent he could not go to the funeral for which the shops of Milan were closed, and the streets lined with thousands. A week after the funeral Verdi went to Milan and visited the grave alone. Then, through his publisher, Ricordi, he proposed to the Mayor of Milan that he should write a Requiem Mass to honour Manzoni to be performed in Milan on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death. Verdi proposed that he himself would compose the entire Mass, pay the expenses of preparing and printing the music, specify the church for the first performance, choose the singers and chorus, rehearse them and conduct the premiere; the city would simply pay the cost of the performance. It was Verdi’s eulogy to a great man of Italy and since when the work is often referred to as The Manzoni Requiem. At the time, and to this day, there is debate about the nature of the music Verdi composed to honour his hero. It is very different from the traditional Ecclesiastical Catholic Requiem Mass, being altogether more dramatic, even operatic, albeit set to the traditional sequence of movements and words of the Latin Mass whilst omitting the Gloria and Credo. Verdi used the Libera me he had composed for the proposed Mass per Rossini as the basis for the concluding movement.

The St. George’s Singers were founded in 1956. They carry the name of the founding church in Poynton, a large Cheshire village about fifteen miles to the south of Manchester. The choir rehearse in the same church each Tuesday under the direction of Neil Taylor their current musical director. By 1958 the choir had grown sufficiently to perform Bach’s St. John’s Passion. Currently around one hundred in number they tour abroad every year with destinations including Poland, Finland, Estonia, Hungary, Prague and Paris. This year they venture to their farthest ever venue, Costa Rica in South America becoming the first British choir to visit the country. In the best tradition of the North of England amateur choirs the members have to raise the money for their tours. The result of their commitment and effort is that the choir can stand at least alongside the Hallé Choir as the North West’s leading ensemble.

Given the dramatic nature of Verdi’s composition and the dynamism of his orchestration it was thought appropriate for St Georges to be joined by around fifty members of the Sheffield Chorale plus 60 orchestral players. The quality of the choral singing was evident throughout this performance, not least in the hushed opening of the Kyrie when the articulation was spot on. It was a major drawback of the performance that they were sat on the same level as the orchestra and behind them. Consequently in the highly resonant monastery, with its high vaulted roof and plastered walls, Verdi’s dramatic music at times seemed to overwhelm the chorus contribution. This was very evident as we sat on the edges of our chairs for the thundering Tuba Mirum and its later reprise. Even that thundering music has its quiet moments as the baritone enters with his intoning Mors stupebit. Colin Campbell’s vocal steadiness, clear diction and vocal strength compensated to a degree from his lack of the deep sonority a true bass would have brought to the part, despite that lack he was a tower of strength throughout. Mezzo Joyce Tindsley immediately showed herself to be a class act in the following Liber scriptus exhibiting an easy top to match her firm lower tones. Throughout the performance she showed her grasp of the nuances of the words as well as varying her dynamic. Importantly, by then her vocal clarity and intonation, throughout her range, cut through the sometimes-dense textures of Verdi’s writing and the resonant acoustic.

The following trio of mezzo, soprano and tenor introduced the other two singers, soprano Rachel Nicholls and tenor Matthew Minter. Her immediate impact matched her mezzo colleague and was reinforced by the following Recordare, essentially a duet for the two female voices. With a background of singing the likes of Wagner’s demanding Isolde, and Beethoven’s Leonore, her spinto sized voice and clear tone and articulation enabled her voice to cut through the woolly sound of the acoustic, especially when Verdi let the orchestra of its leash, as he often does in the piece. I knew straight away that Rachel Nicholls would make a success of the demanding last movement, the Libera me, which she, and the choir carry alone. Matthew Minter, a big man, more like a bass than a tenor, sang with mellifluous heady tone in the Ingemisco, but lacked the ideal vocal strength and bite at other times, being too easily overpowered by the orchestra and chorus.

The sponsoring and mounting of the concert is essentially a chorus matter. As I have indicated the one hundred and fifty choristers showed a capacity to fine their sound or open up to full throated vibrancy as the music required. Regrettably, the volume created by the composer, and realized by the orchestra, sometimes overwhelmed them in their seated positions and blurred their clarity. In the end I reluctantly decided that this is a piece for the Bridgewater Hall – not the Gorton Monastery – where the chorus stand in tiers behind and above the orchestra when the Hallé perform this great work.

Robert J Farr

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