Requiems, like funerals, are essentially less to do with the person who has died than with those left behind. Hence the traditional text for the Requiem is a cavalcade of sadness, piety, deference, hope and terror, skirting a line between honest devotion and a pretty long-winded attempt to convince a deity not to bestow on the deceased a fate literally worse than death. Dvořák doesn’t merely acknowledge this in his Requiem, but seems to embrace it, taking two very different approaches in the two parts of his setting. The stark distinction between them was made a feature of this performance, opening the 2022 Three Choirs Festival. 

Three Choirs Festival Chorus and Philharmonia Orchestra in Hereford Cathedral
© Dale Hodgetts and James O'Driscoll

To that end, there was a tendency throughout towards, if not exaggeration, then extreme emphasis. The Introit set the paradigm, veering wildly from the solemn, mournful deep chant opening the work into a brash tutti, as if rashly taking for granted the departed’s place in paradise and seeking to provide a heraldic accompaniment. The way this oscillation continued established a powerful sense of inner turmoil, which the Philharmonia made the most of, turning the main chromatic motif into an uncomfortable tendril winding round and round.

It can be hard to take a Dies irae seriously these days, as it's become such a shorthand for overblown melodramatic shock and awe, but here this was made a genuine virtue. Neither subtle nor nuanced, but a raw, shouty clamour presumably much truer to what the mythical day of judgement would provoke if actually experienced. Whereupon the Three Choirs Festival Chorus superbly navigated Dvořák’s turning the music inward, becoming quiet devastation. Catherine Carby’s declamatory delivery shone in the surprisingly lyrical Tuba mirum, subsequently given an unsettlingly turbulent foundation by the cellos, making it seem as if the floor were permanently moving. As the Sequence progressed, choir and orchestra played up the music’s movement towards an increasing sense of pity. Quid sum miser became a static, circling daze; Recordare took a turn for the gently tragic, the cellos now creating a lovely texture of pizzicatos resembling a raging heartbeat. The increased tone of earnestness was reinforced by the soloists, though in rather different ways: tenor Ruairi Bowen sounded accepting, while bass-baritone Stephan Loges seemed a touch resigned to his lot.

Soloists Anita Watson, Catherine Carby, Ruairi Bowen and Stephan Loges
© Dale Hodgetts and James O'Driscoll

The performance brought an effective sense of grotesque in ever more massive swings between overblown intensity and desperate fragility. Particularly impressive was the impression, as the Sequence drew to a close and fell into shadow, that this actually was the conclusion of a cogent, lengthy argument, rather than (as Requiems can often seem) merely a collection of separate episodes.

The Philharmonia established the change of tone from the start of the Offertorium, initially by setting it up as a calmer act of devotion, in the form of a rich, sweet hymn. But in no time, the optimism was no longer implied but let rip in successive waves of ebullient confidence, Geraint Bowen whipping everyone up as if aspiring to Berlioz-like levels of enormity. In this new context, the dark tone of Hostias – given a gorgeous, velvety reading by Loges – was merely a momentary respite in the midst of further elation, reaching a high point in the chorus’s rendition of the Sanctus, practically leaping over each other in a display of full-blown seraphic ecstasy.

Though by now all traces of melancholy were gone, having moved beyond petition or contrition into conviction, the orchestra nonetheless teased out some telling dissonances in the work’s closing moments. This, together with the return of the winding chromatic motif, suggested that, despite all the choir’s joyful hope, where divine judgement is concerned, absolutely nothing is certain.