Underwhelming Verdi Requiem from Vasily Petrenko and the RPO at the Royal Albert Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Requiem: Miah Persson (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), David Junghoon Kim (tenor), Alexander Vinogradov (bass), Philharmonia Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 23.4.2024. (JR)

Vasily Petrenko conducts Miah Persson (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), David Junghoon Kim (tenor), Alexander Vinogradov (bass) and the RPO in Verdi’s Requiem © Chris Christodoulou

Every time I enter the Royal Albert Hall, it strikes me that this is such a vast space to fill with sound. Sadly, Vasily Petrenko’s Verdi Requiem did not quite manage it. I was seated quite a way from the stage but that should not have mattered. A combination of factors was, I think, to blame for what turned out to be a rather underwhelming performance.

Let me start with the positives: the orchestra played exceedingly well, with fine solo woodwind contributions, I especially noted the principal bassoon. Vasily Petrenko was clearly attuned with every nuance of the score, his tempi and dynamics were unarguable, it was more a symphonic rather than operatic interpretation of the score – but no harm in that, though it could have benefited from more Italianate warmth and depth of expression. The Dies Irae could have done with more brutality. Two of the four soloists impressed: Jennifer Johnston, who recently stepped in bravely at the last moment to salvage a Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at English National Opera, was always a delight to the ear with her commanding, rich tone and very clear diction; and Alexander Vinogradov was a very dark, bold, sonorous Russian bass with fine stage presence. Whether you like a Russian bass in this repertoire is another matter: I did wonder whether the Grand Inquisitor had come to the wrong performance.

The chorus were on excellent form; the tenors, smaller in number (as usual – an endangered species) than their bass neighbours were not overwhelmed and particularly impressive. It took the choir a short time to warm up, the opening hushed ‘Requiem’ is tricky, very quiet and often unaccompanied – the sopranos fell a mite flat at the outset. The Dies Irae (aided by the largest great bass drum I have ever seen and extra trumpets above the stage) hit the mark and the Sanctus – initially not always in time with the conductor’s fast beat – was thrilling.

So what went wrong? The tenor was a last-minute stand in. It should have been Stefano La Colla, a Verdi specialist. His biography was already in the printed programme. In stepped Korean tenor David Junghoon Kim, who has made his mark with Macduff in Zurich and Covent Garden and Rodolfo, also in Zurich. He has sung many performances of the Verdi Requiem but seemed uncomfortable; his stage presence still needs working on. At the outset, I was disturbed by his slides and swoops, acceptable sometimes in the opera house but not for the Requiem. I suspect, at this early stage of his career, he is more at home on the opera stage than on the concert platform. His top notes were secure, volume more than adequate, and his rendering of Ingemisco was most affecting. There were some odd pronunciations too, especially ‘Deus’ which was oddly unrecognisable.

Swedish soprano Miah Persson, a Sussex resident, is a Mozart specialist and to begin with had trouble making herself audible in the huge hall, especially in her middle and lower registers. The top notes (a top B flat and the big top C) shone out like glittering stars but I wished for more volume, more drama.

Vasily Petrenko conducts the soloists, Philharmonia Chorus and the RPO in Verdi’s Requiem © Chris Christodoulou

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra does not have its own chorus and uses other choruses, often the Philharmonia Chorus. They number around 120, but in a hall the size of the Royal Albert Hall, simply for sheer vocal impact, I would say you need to augment that to nearly double that number. I came away from the performance without any sense of inner satisfaction or glow; it had not been awe-inspiring, and emotion was in short supply. There are often many performances of the Verdi Requiem to choose from in any one season, particularly in London and the surrounding area; this remarkable work is actually not easy to pull off, even if many people know the lovely tunes; it is a challenge and it takes a number of factors to combine – and sadly this performance fell short.

John Rhodes

7 thoughts on “Underwhelming Verdi <i>Requiem</i> from Vasily Petrenko and the RPO at the Royal Albert Hall”

  1. I was overwhelmed, not underwhelmed, by this performance. Perhaps I was fortunate to be sitting very near the front so I was nearly deafened! No issue with vocal impact – it was thrilling. And I thought that Miah Persson was superb.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree. I was sitting in a box about halfway back and the balance was perfect. Unfortunately, sitting at the back of the hall is always underwhelming. The sound simply doesn’t carry that far without amplification.

  3. Oh dear, what an underwhelming review! The sopranos were not flat. The opening was superbly hushed and was perfect. The whole performance performance was simply superb. Vinogradov was perfect for the part .

    And as for your requirements in thew soprano role, I’m afraid that Caballé and Price are sadly no longer around. Persson sang delightfully.

    My I suggest you get a better seat next time?

    • John Rhodes is fully capable of responding himself but on behalf of S&H can I reply to ‘get a better seat’. 99% of reviews on S&H are official ones and we get the seat allocated to us. But the point you are making is that if you go to the Royal Albert Hall those who can pay the most can hear when those not willing to pay so much have to make do with what they get, see and hear ….

      • But this is simply not true: up in the gallery the sound and balance improves, (as is so often the case in opera houses, for example).

        S&H: Mine was only the response to what others comments were suggesting, good to know about the gallery!

  4. In a seat towards front of the arena I thought the performance was terrific, with the positives – the outstanding Jennifer Johnston in particular, and highly commendable singing from the chorus – far outweighing some minor hiccups.
    What spoilt the overall impact was the RAH policy/practice of allowing multiple latecomers in to the auditorium – noisy disruption of seated audience members – even 30 minutes into the performance and just four rows in front of the stage whilst soloist in full flight. Plus folk videoing the concert on their mobile phones. They have no soul………

  5. From the Rausing Circle the sound was pretty good throughout. I agree about that wonderful big bass drum. And the tenor certainly had the fidgets, which was distracting. But all in all I felt it was pretty underwhelming too. Although, truth be told, it is almost always sufficiently whelming to justify the ticket price.


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