We celebrate this year the bicentennials of two of the most influential composers of the 19th century. Yet celebrations in Amsterdam have been rather one-sided so far. With concert performances including The Flying Dutchman by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in May, the Wesendonck Lieder by the Rotterdam Philharmonic in the summer and, especially, a large-scale revival of Pierre Audi’s Ring cycle at De Nederlandse Opera, Wagner seems to have taken the lion’s share of the celebrations. This performance of Verdi’s Requiem by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra felt a bit like the first, long-awaited, tribute to the maestro from Busseto in the Low Countries, although it was not strictly programmed as such, but rather as the following of a series of requiem performances by the orchestra, after Mozart’s in 2011 and Brahms’ in 2012.

Mariss Jansons conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra © Marco Borggreve
Mariss Jansons conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
© Marco Borggreve

I was especially looking forward to this performance as incursions by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra into the Italian repertoire have become scarce since Riccardo Chailly left the position of Chief Conductor in 2004. A performance like last Friday night’s only makes one want to ask for more.

While it is easy to (over)play the dramatic card with Verdi’s Requiem, I felt that chief conductor Mariss Jansons’ interpretation was unusually sensitive and humane. Not that the famous Dies irae lacked in drama and power, but while sometimes balance is upset by the bombast of the more dramatic sections, here the whole piece came together as the long, beautiful and genuinely moving prayer for salvation it should be.

Sometimes the whole is larger than the sum of its parts, and this can be said of the four soloists of Friday night. While none of them might have been totally flawless individually (perhaps with the exception of the mezzo), their voices worked beautifully as a quartet. Polish soprano Aga Mikolaj stepped in to replace Anja Harteros, announced ill just one day before. It must certainly be hard to replace such a star at such short notice, but Mikolaj proved she was up to the challenge. I’d ideally want to hear a spinto lirico in this part; hers is clearly a lyric soprano and I found her low register lacking resonance and colour for this piece, but the top of the range is truly beautiful and I’d be eager to hear her again in another type of repertoire. In the Recordare, she and mezzo-soprano Olesya Petrova turned towards each other as if offering each other support, and their voices contrasted to beautiful effect.

I am still unsure what to think of Dimitri Pittas’ use of squillo. I found he sounded somewhat stretched in Ingemisco tamquam Reus and sometimes underpowered in ensemble passages, but generally, he produced an exciting and occasionally beautiful sound which I found very moving. I thoroughly enjoyed the dark colours of Yuri Vorobiev’s bass. The way he pronounced the last “mors” (death) in his solo part of Tuba mirum was truly thrilling.

Olesya Petrova, like Vorobiev yet another talented product of the Mariinsky, has the most splendid voice, and was definitely my favourite of the four soloists. Her voice is rich and exquisite throughout the range, with a dark, velvety, Slavic sound (if such a thing exists) in the lower range, impeccably smooth passaggio, and luminous high notes. In the first bars of Lux aeternam, her voice rose as if it indeed was a beam of sunlight and this was to me one of the most memorable parts of the whole performance.

The Netherlands Radio Choir gave a world-class performance throughout the evening, perhaps at its very best in the hauntingly sung Sanctus.

It is strange how one keeps forgetting how great the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra sounds in this repertoire, which is not what it is usually associated with or famous for. Yet, from the cellos’ entry at the beginning of the work to the apocalyptic trumpets of the Tuba mirum, I was constantly reminded of that special sound, both precisely chiselled and deeply felt, that makes any experience of this orchestra unforgettable, in this repertoire too. I am very much looking forward to hearing them play Falstaff under the baton of Daniele Gatti this coming summer.