No surprise to find a Verdi programme at the Proms in his bicentenary year, but what was unusual was the focus on sacred music, given his antipathy towards the church as demonstrated in his more prolific output, his operas. The BBC recently screened a musically illustrated documentary on the composer, fronted by this evening’s maestro, Sir Antonio Pappano, and on top of his expected knowledge of the subject, what an engaging and articulate presenter he was! This personality was echoed tonight on stage with his all-Italian company, and from stage to auditorium, where the audience clearly loved him.

Sir Antonio Pappano conducts the Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Sir Antonio Pappano conducts the Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Nor had they taken the more obvious option and programmed Verdi’s monumental Requiem, although we were treated to a precursor of one of its movements, the Libera me. Inspired by national pride and the deepest respect for Rossini, just after his fellow composer’s death in 1868, Verdi instigated a memorial project whereby each of the Mass sections would be written by a different Italian composer, with the conclusion in his own hands. Despite the material being written, the plan to perform the Mass on the anniversary of Rossini’s death didn’t come to fruition due to organisational and personality difficulties. Verdi used the basis of it, though, with modifications, when he wrote his full Requiem for novelist Alessandro Manzoni a few years later.

The familiar excitement and clashes of style and mood are all there in the predecessor, and the Chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome opened it in fine style with disciplined control through measured, hushed tones. The anticipation in the audience was palpable, as though nobody dared move a muscle for fear of breaking the spell, as the singers pleaded for deliverance, with a stylish lean on “tremenda”, emphasising the dread of the Day of Judgement. The first choral outburst at “Dies irae” has different music in the original, and this was handled to dramatic effect, with exciting accompaniment featuring lots of brass and drum rolls. Heaven and earth might indeed have been moving. Drama was also achieved with the changes in tempo, and some of the most exquisite moments came with the careful, classy placing of crucial words, “luceat” being a shining example.

Soprano Maria Agresta, stylishly operatic, balanced well with the chorus during the Libera me, but for me her sweet voice was heard to best advantage in Ave Maria. This version of the traditional prayer for soprano and strings (not to be confused with that sung by Desdemona in Otello or the opener to the Four Sacred Pieces) was composed for a benefit concert at La Scala. Agresta’s clear voice wrung heartfelt devotional tenderness out of the Italian text attributed to Dante, blossoming from the calm of a single repeated low note to a gloriously sunny, soaring central section, the whole framed by unobtrusive strings.

The strings of the Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome had also kicked off the concert with Carl Herrmann’s arrangement of the String Quartet in E minor. Verdi wrote this almost as a sideline whilst awaiting resolutions to some technical hitches in productions of his operas in Naples, and it was first performed at a low-key soirée at his house. A rare work of Verdi’s without voices, it nevertheless has a songlike quality, particularly exemplified in the gentle opening by a small nucleus. Even when joined by their remaining string colleagues, building colour and richness through a crescendo, there remained an intimate atmosphere, probably enhanced by the proximity of the prommers. The piece alternates between passages of drama and quiet poise. A lovely cello solo in the “Prestissimo” injected a decided feel-good factor, the cellist quite rightly acclaimed during the warm applause. The contrasting effects between near-standstill and brilliant accelerando in the closing movement were superbly done.

Though accompanied by orchestra in the second and fourth, the chorus took the limelight in Four Sacred Pieces. Every eye was on Pappano, so it was surprising just occasionally that their entries seemed a little tentative and not entirely together, whereas the consistency of final consonants and cadences was spot-on. They could give masterclasses in breathing techniques as well as dynamics and precision of articulation – a carefully-placed marcato in “dum pendebat” in the Stabat Mater was a fine example of making the words work.

A delighted Pappano brought chorusmaster Ciro Visco on stage to acknowledge the well-merited cheers of the crowd. A lovely touch was to turn the entire company around to face the audience behind them in the upper choir stalls, to accept their applause. To be honest, that gave my hands a welcome little rest.

****1