Verdi’s masterpiece dazzled a packed Festival Hall on Thursday night. His Requiem is a curiously crafted piece with the Introit and more lengthy Dies irae providing an introduction for the soprano in preparation for later demands. The conductor, orchestra and chorus are in immediate demand from Verdi, however, and Edward Gardner and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Philharmonia Voices and Rodolfus Choir didn’t disappoint. Cutting an elegant figure in a sharp suit, Gardner guided them with assured steeliness creating a thrilling tension from the outset.

Verdi doesn’t wait for his audience either. With the first note of the Introit, this music compelled quietude for the next ninety minutes. The two amalgamated choirs, with over a hundred voices, immediately excelled with a youthful sound in the sopranos and the basses and baritones providing virile Verdian thunder. And the orchestra, momentarily too loud, rang out victoriously. By the trio in the Dies irae, Gardner was in full stride; he allowed the melody to sooth after the earlier onslaught with trumpets and drums competed with one another for virtuosity – only to stop suddenly leaving the bass Jongmin Park accompanied by a threatening drum beat – death hung in the air. Park, replacing the bass Alexander Vinogradov, initially sounded foggy but this cleared as the evening progressed leaving a veiled sound which thankfully didn’t affect his impressive diction. He’d be a perfect Sarastro.

Like many composers, Verdi wrote his best tunes for the soprano voice rather than for the mezzo. Christine Rice, also a late replacement, certainly has the large range for this and gave a respectable performance, although her delivery was pedestrian. She became more animated but was outshone by the soprano, Lise Davidsen. The soprano doesn’t sing alone until the last number, the Libera me, and during the ensembles which are certainly demanding but less exposed, Davidsen shone, projecting her bright soprano gloriously above her three colleagues, the chorus and orchestra. In the Lacrimosa, her stratospherically high pianissimo was silken. She tackled the Libera me more carefully, which didn’t diminish from the beauty of her voice, yet this heart-wrenching music would have benefited from her earlier freer sound. The pianissimo B flat was delivered exquisitely, however, allowing no vibrato to creep in, and her sound was pure. Likewise, the tenor René Barbera free-wheeled through the score, singing with ease and assuredness especially with his first Kyrie eleison, and subsequently in the Offertorio which was effortless and charming. 

Verdi’s score is a glorious rollercoaster punctuated by climaxes of extreme drama diminishing into breath-taking melodies. Gardner convinced us that this is a dream score and rode the tumultuous waves of the music with dastardly dash. The chorus stayed together throughout, and the gargantuan orchestra with its silvery strings and voluminous wind were sublime. Gardner knows how to squeeze out the emotive powers of this score's quieter moments and with the fabulous Philharmonia, two choruses and four impressive soloists at his finger-tips, he was on a roll.