Orchestre national du Capitole de Toulouse shines in Verdi’s Requiem at the Philharmonie de Paris

FranceFrance Verdi, Requiem: Susanne Bernhard (soprano), Aude Extrémo (mezzo-soprano), Airam Hernández (tenor), Adam Palka (bass). Orfeón Donostiarra, Orchestre national du Capitole de Toulouse / Jukka Pekka Saraste (conductor). Grande Salle Pierre Boulez, Philharmonie de Paris, 6.1.2022. (LV)

The Orchestra of Toulouse in Verdi‘s Requiem © Dan Krajcman

A performance of Verdi’s Requiem at the Philharmonie de Paris on a balmy Wednesday night before a wildly enthusiastic, sold-out audience proved to be a showcase for the Orchestre national du Capitole de Toulouse, which experts consider to be one of the country’s top three orchestras. Playing in the Philharmonie de Paris’s audiophile Grand Salle Pierre Boulez, the band from Toulouse gave a performance of Verdi’s Requiem that tamed its relentlessly operatic nature in favor of something more human and gently beautiful.

With the Orchestre still in search of a music director, Jukka Pekka Saraste conducted with characteristically understated precision, eliciting passionate singing from the soloists and handling the renowned Orfeón Donostiarra chorus from San Sebastián, Toulouse’s sister city, in its massive moments with ease and in its quieter moments with rapt simplicity. The performance was notable not only for the sheer power of the music in the most dramatic outbursts, with the timpani and the big bass drum making marvelous noises, but for its overall warmth and generosity.

The soloists were not a well-matched lot in terms of color and vibrato, but it turned out to be only a minor distraction. Mezzo-soprano Aude Extrémo, with a voice like chocolate velvet, floated her high notes with intoxicating ease and swept majestically through her iconic solos. Soprano Susanne Bernhard, looking sad and lonely at times, was also thrilling at times, nailing the high notes with superb intonation, but she seemed hesitant at others. Tenor Airam Hernández was sweet and ardent, his wonderful resonance matching perfectly with the strings, and bass Adam Palka was deeply impressive although occasionally he was simply not loud enough.

It was the orchestra that was outstanding, liberated from the acoustically underwhelming confines of their home venue in Toulouse, the Halle aux Grains. The strings in particular, led by the brilliant young Albanian concertmaster Kristi Gjezi, a graduate of the Conservatoire and a Queen Elisabeth finalist only a few years ago, were a joy with outstanding violins, eloquent cellos and profoundly foundational double basses. The splendid brass featured exquisite solo playing by longtime principal horn Jacques Delaplanque; the winds featured principal bassoonist Estelle Richard in exquisitely aching solos and principal oboist Chi Yuen Cheng sounding lovely notes that seemed to glow in the dark.

When the music stopped, the Parisians gave the kind of ovations and love that is reserved for hometown heroes.

Laurence Vittes

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