The Latin Requiem Mass has inspired a great variety of responses, from Mozart’s sublime devotion to Verdi’s awe-inspiring theatricality to the intimacy of Fauré – and indeed, there is great variety within each of those works. At over 90 minutes, Antonín Dvořák’s Requiem, Op.89, is one of the longer versions, and generally, it’s one of the more meditative, encouraging introspective contemplation of the afterlife.
It also sounds surprisingly English to our modern ears: that’s because at the time that singing of big choral works by community choirs became widespread in England, Dvořák was one of the most popular composers, which makes his music an integral part of our choral tradition – and indeed, the Requiem was commissioned by the Birmingham Festival and first performed there in 1891. Clearly, confronted with music of such quality, any qualms about papistry could be safely set aside.
At the helm of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Jiří Bělohlávek started the initial Requiem Aeternam with a measured tread. Dvořák is constantly shifting the dynamics as the music swells from quiet contemplation into outpourings of emotion, and Bělohlávek was adept at taking us through those shifts. And although this isn’t a work packed with memorable melodies, Dvořák’s harmonies are constantly in motion: time and again, the orchestra or some section of the chorus would hit home with a particularly telling key change, a resolution of a suspended chord or a minor-to-major switch.
In the first half, however, the performance lacked the vital spark to bring it to life. Tenors and basses were solid on their pedal notes, sopranos and altos giving fullness and richness, brass and woodwind interjections delivered clearly and in time. But the whole thing needed an injection of energy, which I felt most keenly in the big brass introduction of the Dies Irae, which, in this Requiem as in any other, is the movement in which to inject some shock and awe of the Almighty. The performance fared better in the quieter moments, such as a moving call-and-response section between on-stage brass and an offstage trumpet in the Tuba Mirum.
We had four good solo voices from soloists of unexceptionable pedigree. But all four seemed to be playing it safe: everything was accurate, the notes were all in the right place, but at no point were they throwing themselves headlong into the emotional depths of their roles. James Platt’s deep bass intoning of Mors Stupebit was the strongest; stand-in mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers displayed authority. Kateřina Kněžíková had all the required balance and phrasing, but her intelligibility suffered from a scarcity of consonants, neither she nor tenor Richard Samek sounded totally committed. Samek’s Liber Scriptus was even, clear, but didn’t fill me with fear of the book of judgement in which all is recorded. A few high points apart – for example, the choral entries in the Confutatis – I wasn’t feeling drawn into the music.