Dramatically searing Verdi Requiem in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Requiem: Vlada Borovko (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), David Butt Philip (tenor), David Soar (bass), BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales / Richard Farnes (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 3.10.2019. (PCG)

In the year in which we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the death of Hector Berlioz, his Grande Messe des Morts has tended to overshadow the other great dramatic Requiem of the nineteenth century in performances around the world. But here, to open the BBC National Orchestra of Wales season at St David’s Hall (although not their Cardiff season, which began last week, review click here), we were presented with Verdi’s rival to the Berlioz blockbuster – not that the two works would have been seen as rivals when performances of the Berlioz had extreme rarity status. In fact, this performance served to demonstrate why during the nineteenth century, and indeed for much of the twentieth, the Verdi work so comprehensively overshadowed the Berlioz treatment of the same text. Muh as I love the monumental Berlioz score, it has to be admitted that his grandly conceived contrasts are less well integrated than Verdi’s more compact structure. And the closer adherence of the latter to the liturgical text does not obviate the composer’s ability by careful employment of repeated passages in the (revised) final movement to furnish a most satisfying symphonic whole. Nor, despite his less extravagant forces, does Verdi – except at the most exceptional moments – lose out to Berlioz’s technicolour contrasts. He even surpasses Berlioz in the sheer sense of terror he brings to the text of the Dies irae.

Mind you, both the Verdi and Berlioz scores can suffer severely if performers are unwilling to provide the sheer sense of danger and excitement for which the music so desperately cries out. No amount of ‘spiritual engagement’ can compensate for the sense of theatricality which lies at the heart of the writing, and there was certainly no shortage of the theatrical in this performance. Richard Farnes, with his extensive operatic experience, stinted nothing in the sheer drama of his headlong attack in the Dies irae and the Libera me. At the same time, he gave us the maximum contrast in such passages as the unaccompanied octaves for soprano and mezzo at the beginning of the Agnus Dei, where Vlada Borovko and Jennifer Johnston blended superbly. The ending of the Lux aeterna too was heavenly in its sense of quiet rapture, with the sudden eruption of the soprano chant in the ensuing Libera me coming as quite a jolt.

Performances of the Verdi Requiem rely of course on the use of operatic voices to deliver the solo lines with suitable vehemence, but the soloists are also required to form a unified blend in the many passages of quartet. Those here superbly fulfilled both requirements. David Butt Philip delivered his big ‘aria’ Ingemisco with marvellous lyrical richness and delicacy of touch. Jennifer Johnston brought a sense of real danger to her stentorian lower register in Liber scriptus proferetur. David Soar and Vlada Borovko were both exquisite in their quieter passages such as his Mors stupebit, but showed a reluctance to push their voices beyond the limits of what would sound beautiful in the more strenuous climaxes – although Borovko’s top Cs were thrilling. At moments, in chillingly difficult unaccompanied passage at the end of the Libera me (a single voice isolated at the front of the stage from the chorus placed metaphorical leagues behind her), her search for expressiveness ruffled the line. After she has floated a heavenly and superlatively poised pppp top B flat on the final note, there was surely no need for her to spoil the effect with an unmarked crescendo.

The orchestra fizzed and erupted with maximum force whenever Verdi required it, but at the same time the woodwind solos were beautifully played (and the three solo flutes in the Agnus Dei were clearly differentiated). A mention, too, for the bass drum; it ran the gamut from earth-shaking explosions to almost inaudible whispering in a manner which demonstrated that size is not everything. The BBC National Chorus of Wales, at full strength and spilling out of the central choir stalls into the side seats, rode the orchestral tumult conjured up by Richard Farnes with strength and clarity, as well as immaculate tuning and control of dynamics.

One seemingly trivial point that should be mentioned. The latest (1966) copies of the Ricordi vocal score come equipped with precise instructions for when the choir should stand to sing and when they should sit. But the anxiety of the editors to allow the choristers to rise and be prepared for their entries has led them to anticipate several of Verdi’s ‘surprise’ climaxes by the choir signalling their readiness beforehand. At this concert, as for example in the sudden bass eruption of Rex tremendae majestatis, the whole choir rose exactly as the passage commenced, with stunning and gripping dramatic effect. (The score recommends they should do this nine bars earlier – during an inconsiderately quiet passage of music to boot.) It is this sort of apparently minor consideration and attention to detail which can make the performance of live music such as stupendous experience. It is a pity that this spine-chilling moment will have been lost of the home audience listening to the live broadcast of this concert. Mind you, the audience was relatively sparse by comparison with some choral concerts at this venue during the last couple of years. I suppose the atrocious weather conditions may have had something to do with this, but I do hope it is not a significant trend. At all events, the broadcast continues to be available to stream or download on BBC Sounds for the next thirty days, and I trust that much of the drama of the performance will come over the airwaves.

A word, too, for the excellent programme complete with texts and translations, as well as notes by Malcolm Hayes and Philip Gossett. And a compliment to whoever is responsible for these BBC programme cover designs; this one was stunningly good, combining elements of Renaissance and Victorian art in a manner which exactly reflected the music itself. A really encouraging start to the season.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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