Croydon Philharmonic Choir’s Verdi Requiem at Fairfield Halls

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi Requiem: Erica Eloff (soprano), Samantha Price (mezzo-soprano), Alberto Sousa (tenor), Nicholas Warden (bass), Croydon Philharmonic Choir, London Mozart Players / David Gibson (conductor). Phoenix Hall at Fairfield Halls, 26.10.2019. (JB)

Verdi scholars like to claim his Messa da Requiem as his operatic masterpiece.  That it IS operatic is beyond dispute. But some critics at the first performance objected to the Catholic Mass for the Dead being treated as opera. That first performance was at the Church of San Marco, Milano on 22 May 1874 marking a year after the death of Alessandro Manzoni, poet, novelist and friend of Verdi. Verdi conducted. (It was also played at Verdi’s Funeral 1901, conducted by Toscanini).

More than in his stage works, the chorus is the protagonist of his Requiem. In fact, Verdi calls for a double chorus with antiphonal effects. The four soloists do what soloists do in Verdi opera – deliver arias of demanding technical and musical challenge and come together in duets, trios, quartets. The opera in ecclesiastical robes as one early critic dubbed it, is also held together by one of Verdi’s biggest orchestras: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons and 4 horns, 8 trumpets (4 offstage), 3 trombones, 1 tuba. And timpani, bass drum and strings.

Something is lost with performances in concert halls. It is conceived with the echoing effect of the Mighty Churches and humanity presenting itself at the end of life before its Maker. Awesome. Verdi liked to say he was a non-believer. He certainly mocked the Catholic Church and laughed at Giuseppina’s (his wife’s) steadfast mumbo-jumbo (as Giuseppe called her faith). But Giuseppina is said to have told more than one person that her husband was too religious for what he saw as the confines of Catholicism.

The most moving performance I ever heard was in Rome’s Basilica di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in 1970 (on YouTube though the sound is less than ideal) put together by Francesco Siciliani with Claudio Abbado conducting and Renata Scotto, Marilyn Horne (making an Italian debut) Luciano Pavarotti and Nicolai Ghiaurov as soloists. Siciliani brought the RAI chorus of Turin down to Rome with the RAI Rome chorus and orchestra. The basilica is immensely tall and constructed largely from marble. Before I installed air-conditioning in my nearby flat, on summer days I would take my book to read in the cool of the church. On a day when they are not too busy, the Dominican monks will take you into their underground, where there are the remains of the Roman temple to Minerva. Now imagine setting all this alive with the sound of Verdi’s Requiem. If part of Verdi’s ‘religion’ was pagan, well that appears to fit in here comfortably.

Verdi wanted his Messa to be performed without interval. It is obvious why. The atmosphere created gets broken with an unnecessary interval. I would go further. It is sacrilege to introduce one. The strings are frequently called on to play con sordino (with mute) which gives a zither-like haunting sound. And London Mozart Payers deliver this admirably. But then to destroy the effect with applause and interval? Criminal! Not merely disrespectful of Verdi’s genius.

Let me get the other main criticism out of the way, for the rest is very close to the accomplishment of Abbado and team in 1970. The English are not too keen on the Italian pronunciation of Latin. But Anglicised pronunciation of Latin is not the sound which Verdi wants. The Croydon Philharmonic Choir acquitted themselves remarkably well on this. They sounded Italian. And with the exception of a few guests who augmented them, they sang from memory. Memorised music is always music you have made your own. And that was audible.

But mezzo-soprano Samantha Price sounded as though she was singing Welsh Latin. Has she never heard her namesake Margaret singing in Italian? That is the sound dear Samantha. Anything else comes out more like clucking than singing. And though Samantha’s voice is not big – more of a Teresa Berganza than a Marilyn Horne – it is exceedingly pleasing. Welsh Latin apart.

Erica Eloff stood out as the outstanding soloist: expressive, chillingly dramatic and blessed with a perfect vocal technique. Her soaring up to the famous pianissimo top D flat in the Libera me was made in heaven. (Giulini told me that Schwarzkopf required five takes before she got there in their HMV recording.) She did have some trouble projecting the lower notes. Courage Erica! This hall’s magnificent acoustic will do that for you if you will only project.

The acoustic however could not handle the antiphonal effect of the double choir of the Sanctus. It sounded like what it was: one huge choir.

Nicholas Warden has a rich, fulsome, finely projected bass voice. Authoritative too. His opening aria was not just secure, it was wondrously lyrical too: Mors stupebit et natura, cum resurget creatura – admirably translated in the handsome programme as Death and nature will be astounded, when all creation rises again. 

Alberto Sousa is a gifted lyric tenor with a fine technique. His contributions to the ensembles are arguably his finest moments: this is one of those rare voices that finds its rightful place in quartets almost by nature. He falters only when he forces. Which is rarely. Not a big voice. But the acoustic is kind to you, dear Alberto. And your heart knows this.

I have already praised the LMP strings. But something must be added of the sixteen admirable brass players – largely imported for the Requiem. The antiphonal playing of the eight trumpets – four of them offstage, and here placed at the back of the hall. Robust, majestic, inspiring. The hall helps them too. I am reminded again how much the UK owes to the Salvation Army in its teaching and launching of our finest brass players.

All these forces were impressively combined by conductor, David Gibson. His choice of tempi was on the cautious side. But that is right too. It shows respect for the hall’s undisputed sound. And the Choir have long associations with the Phoenix Hall even before this is how it was renamed for the reopening.

I cannot help thinking that Giuseppe Verdi would have approved of the evening being dedicated to South East Centre Cancer Help. Its chair, Jennifer Mollett gave the briefest of speeches, explaining to the audience how cancer is so often the most isolating of diseases and how SECHR provides friendship and love to sufferers, based on largely unpaid, volunteer workers. Mrs Mollett invited us to make a contribution to this cause following the Requiem. But try as we did at the end of the music, I and a friend were not able to locate anyone to receive our contributions.

Jack Buckley

For more about the Croydon Philharmonic Choir click here.