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After an imperfect start, Dvořák’s Requiem catches fire at the Barbican

By , 14 April 2017

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.

Whatever may have been the contents of Bělohlávek’s half-time team talk, it was as if a different group of performers emerged for the second half. The almost cheerful opening with a nice bassoon solo gave way to a full throated orchestral swell; the timpani provided strong driving pulse for what developed into an exciting fugue. Suddenly, in the Hostias, Platt took on extra strength and became more fervent, Kněžíková’s voice took on an operatic impetus, and all the soloists sang with added urgency. Another big fugue had us sitting up in our seats, and the Sanctus was as thrilling as I could have asked for. The music continued to show Dvořák’s exploration of different textures and combinations: after a wonderfully reflective opening to the Pie Jesu, the soloists were virtually unaccompanied; the big choral entry to the Agnus Dei had the bite I had been missing all evening and, after another contemplative passage, the words “lux aeterna” were the cue to orchestra and chorus turning on the glory.

Dvořák’s Requiem isn’t performed all that often. In spite of my reservations, this was a good introduction to its virtues and I'm looking forward to hearing it again.

As a footnote: this concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and I have to point out that several of the passages sound significantly better on iPlayer than I remember them sounding live. It’s something I’ve noticed in the Proms in the past, and I’m guessing that it stems from the use of many microphones, allowing the broadcast engineers to achieve better balance than might be the case in any particular seat in the hall.

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Reviewed at Barbican Hall, London on 13 April 2017
Dvořák, Requiem, Op.89
Kateřina Kněžíková, Soprano
Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Mezzo-soprano
Richard Samek, Tenor
James Platt, Bass
Jiří Bělohlávek, Conductor
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