On Thursday, a polar storm swept up New Zealand doing major damage to Wellington and, in the process, trapped the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra there as they prepared to fly to Auckland. There was some doubt as to whether they would make it here for this concert (they had to cancel the previous evening’s performance of Holst’s The Planets) but fortunately a flight materialised (reportedly in the form of the Royal New Zealand Air Force) and they made it to the fully-booked Town Hall in time to bring a storm of their own to the Verdi Requiem, conducted by their music director Pietari Inkinen. Despite the circumstances, the orchestra were on spectacular form. Never have I heard the orchestral parts of the Dies irae so thrillingly played, with dazzling evocations of lightning from the flutes. The brass playing was simply perfection throughout and the more reflective moments were remarkable for the amount of orchestral detail noticeable (beautifully realised pizzicati in the Sanctus).

Pietari Inkinen
Pietari Inkinen

The superlative nature of the orchestra’s contribution made the rather spotty showing of the vocal soloists all the more of a pity. The shining exception was the magnificent tenor, Australian Rosario La Spina. From his first entrance in the Kyrie it was clear that we were in the presence of a major singer – the interval taken cleanly with nary a suggestion of a scoop. Very Italianate in tone (his Sicilian descent is much in evidence), the voice has a generally bright and golden timbre with just a hint of dark spinto. Most remarkable is the way he can project out into the hall; the beginning of the Hostias was gorgeously hushed yet totally audible even in the very rear of the dress circle. At first the bass part seemed to be in rock-solid hands in the form of Jud Arthur’s lean, but still plush, voice. The difficult Mors stupebit was expertly tuned and he served as an effective anchor for the ensembles. However, he hit some hurdles later on; there were errors of timing in the Lux aeterna and the climactic note in the Confutatis never quite materialised.

On the distaff side, Margaret Medlyn brought a sure sense of musicality to the alto part, but unfortunately, by now the voice is becoming worn and on the higher notes the vibrato was very wide. I admired her musical intentions – real care was put into the hairpin dynamics of the Liber scriptus – but too often the result was a bit unpleasant on the ear. Particularly problematic were the Recordare and Agnus Dei duets, with a jarring contrast between Medlyn’s vibrato and the soprano’s mostly “straight” tone. The upper lines of these duets were taken by another Australian, soprano Lisa Harper-Brown. Her basic tone is pretty, but it was hard not to think that her voice is probably a couple of sizes too small for the part – we shouldn’t forget that the first singer of it also originated the part of Aida in Italy. Too often Harper-Brown’s sound was lost amongst the thick choral textures and she sounded wan compared to the others when she took up the Kyrie theme. In saying that, much of the soft-singing was exquisite; her pianissimo B flat in the Libera me was perfectly radiant. Given the various idiosyncrasies of the soloists, it’s no surprise that the blend occasionally verged on the bizarre, La Spina’s virile tenor sound mercifully shining through.

For this performance, Auckland Choral was augmented by members of Dunedin’s City Choir. Music director Uwe Grodd has worked wonders with Auckland Choral and they were impressive both in clarity of line and sheer amplitude. The tricky fugal Sanctus movement was cleanly executed, something that was beyond them when I last heard them in this piece a few years ago. Contrastingly, they were superlative in the opening Requiem aeternam, tone suitably muted and with no sagging in pitch. Conductor Pietari Inkinen’s conception of the work was extremely fiery, with a wonderful propulsive momentum. This paid great dividends in the more dramatic sections of the work – each repetition of the Dies irae seemed more exciting the last – but the reflective portions occasionally seemed rushed. A particular shame was the Ingemisco, where La Spina’s soulful rendition needed a little more room to make its full impact. Inkinen’s approach had its definite upsides; there were certainly no sense of any of the movements dragging as they sometimes can in overly reverential interpretations, and each movement followed on from the previous in a coherent manner. The drama was almost operatic in its conception, giving weight to Hans von Bülow’s accusation that the piece was “an opera in ecclesiastical garb”. Additionally, it can’t be denied that the final build-up at the conclusion of the Libera me was breathtakingly exciting. All in all, despite some reservations, it was a fitting tribute to Verdi on the occasion of his 200th birthday year.

***11