The San Brizio Chapel in Orvieto’s wondrous cathedral houses frescos by Luca Signorelli that both charm and chill; the saved disport themselves in a flower-decked Paradise while the damned are condemned to fall into hell and suffer all manner of cruel indignities. Verdi would have known them and other Renaissance depictions of The Day of Judgment and no doubt called them to mind when writing his own fresco in sound, his intensely dramatic Requiem, the piece chosen to begin the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir’s series of Choral Saturdays at the Royal Festival Hall.

Edward Gardner © Benjamin Ealovega
Edward Gardner
© Benjamin Ealovega

But while the sound world is unmistakably Verdian, its structure is that of the Latin Mass for the Dead which, unlike Verdi's operas, puts the emphasis firmly on the chorus, not the soloists. The London Philharmonic Choir rose to the challenge and far exceeded it, singing with well-rehearsed precision and an exciting sense of drama, particularly in the repeated Dies irae sections, where they had to compete with fearsome fusillades from brass and percussion.

And while most large choirs can sing triple forte convincingly, few can produce the sort of clarity and balance that the LPC brought to the sotto voce passages, as in the beautiful Requiem aeternam section of the closing Libera me, or their whispered “Quantus tremor est futuris” of the Dies irae. With this quality of singing under artistic director Neville Creed this choir has surely won its place as the best of the London orchestra choruses.

While the choir was rock solid, conductor Edward Gardner – the LPO’s Principal Conductor Designate until he takes up the top job in 2021 – did not have an easy time marshalling his soloists. First, the South African soprano Elza van den Heever withdrew and was replaced by the Romanian Iulia Maria Dan. Then Armenian tenor Arsen Soghomonyan also withdrew. American Leonardo Capalbo was billed in his place, but fell ill on the day, so step forward English tenor Robert Murray, who did a heroic job at extremely short notice.

The two constants on the bill, Russian mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova and Hungarian bass-baritone Gábor Bretz, displayed their customary assurance and commitment; Gubanova’s opening Liber scriptus proferetur stunned with its chilling directness, while Bretz terrified us with Confutatis maledictis.

With a hastily arranged ensemble of soloists, and with some very big voices on stage, balance was not always perfect in the Offertorio quartet, but soprano Dan and mezzo Gubanova found a perfect equilibrium in the Agnus Dei duet, complemented with some lovely flute obbligato. And there was a glorious moment in the Lux aeterna when the double basses established a funeral tread with a repeated pizzicato B flat, played with a flamboyant flourish to underline its dread significance.

Iulia Maria Dan sang beautifully throughout the evening but nowhere more so than in the Libera me, where she rode over the chorus like a glorious firework on her way to a top C, before hollowing out her voice completely for the almost-spoken, desolate last line “Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna” (Lord, deliver me out of everlasting death) – a stunning close to a top-quality evening.

****1