Gardiner’s Verdi Requiem – Tasteful But Hardly Electrifying

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Verdi: Monteverdi Choir, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), Corinne Winters (soprano), Marianna Pizzolato (mezzo-soprano), Michael Spyres (tenor), Tareq Nazmi (Bass), Tonhalle Maag, Zurich. 19.1.2018. (JR)

Verdi Requiem

I think of Sir John Eliot Gardiner as wearing two distinct musical hats. First as a key figure in the early music revival, with his English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, performing Bach cantatas and Passions, Handel oratorios and Monteverdi operas. Second, with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (ORR), performing well regarded cycles of symphonies, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and, his next project, Schumann. One forgets Gardiner’s liking of Verdi. Gardiner recorded the Requiem twenty years ago. His soprano then, Ľuba Orgonášová, was supposed to sing at the Tonhalle but she was indisposed.

Gardiner has clearly examined and considered every note and word of the score and now is on a mission to broadcast his meticulous interpretation of the work around Europe. He will be back, with the ORR this time, in Lucerne in October, to perform the work again. The Monteverdi Choir website says there will be other performances, but is shy about giving details at this stage.

Four strong soloists are required for a truly great performance of this dramatic and meditative masterpiece, and Gardiner was unlucky in that two of his choices (Orgonášová and Italian bass Gianluca Buratto) fell ill just before the concert. Their names were still in the printed programme, so the stand-ins cannot have had it easy.

Corinne Winters did not appear to have time to find an appropriate dress for a Requiem, her dress – perhaps designed by Yuja Wang – being strapless. Next to her, the mezzo Marianna Pizzolato looked the essence of decorum. On the other side, strangely, Michael Spyres sported odd attire and it was the stand-in bass who looked the part.

Vocally it was a similar story. Winters’ voice was just not big enough, even though the Tonhalle’s temporary home is small. The notes were there, but more breadth and feeling were needed. Moreover, Winters waved her hands continually – an added distraction. Mezzo Marianna Pizzolato, on the other hand, was simply perfect, singing with clear understanding of the meaning of the text. She held the audience transfixed whenever she sang, never moving her hands. Michael Spyres sounded constrained early on, with some tightness at the top; he was perhaps keeping his powder dry for the ‘Ingemisco’ and the ‘Hostias’ both of which he delivered with some style and no lack of precision. The German-Egyptian bass, Tareq Nazmi, was, quite simply, a revelation. He towered over his fellow soloists in all senses, his bass resonant, never booming, with perfect intonation.

The choir was, as expected, superbly trained and first-rate. I counted 62 singers, and, just on occasion I wished for a chorus of double that number to send shivers down the spine. However the upside of the relatively small number was that, even in the double chorus sections, one clearly heard every part. Gardiner used just one or two sopranos in the opening ‘Kyrie’ on the word ‘dona’, which was most effective. The chorus was particularly impressive in the effervescent ‘Sanctus’.

Gardiner employed many special effects. He elicited almost inaudible playing at the start of the ‘Kyrie’, some strangulated sounds from the horn section in the galvanising ‘Dies Irae’, and had Simon Styles, the tuba player, play a cimbasso instead of a tuba. Apparently Verdi hated tubas for two reasons: too hoarse, too coarse in sound and emanating from Austria (politically incorrect at that time). Accordingly cimbassi (if that is the right plural) are to be found in many Verdi operas, and in the Requiem. Gardiner had the brass stand in the relevant parts of the ‘Dies Irae’ and, thankfully, did not ask the bass drummer to hold back.

And yet somehow the piece did not electrify as it can. Gardiner’s meticulous approach and frequent broad tempi robbed the work of a degree of voltage and excitement. Critics of his interpretation in the past have mentioned his lack of an Italianate feeling and too much ‘good (British) taste’.

The orchestra played magnificently; their new Chief Conductor-in-Waiting, Paavo Järvi, was in the audience, getting ready to bring his Estonian Festival Orchestra to Zurich.

It seems difficult to have a perfect Verdi Requiem, one needs perhaps a quite large but well drilled chorus, an Italian conductor, an Eastern European soprano and a not too resonant but large hall so the music can breathe and, at times, excite. Hopefully Lucerne will deliver some of these.

John Rhodes

1 thought on “Gardiner’s Verdi <i>Requiem</i> – Tasteful But Hardly Electrifying”

  1. Winters is one of the most overrated sopranos out there. Good looks should not a career make, and in her case, it is simply astonishing that she has sung so many places on those cords..


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