The Latin Requiem traverses a series of emotional responses to death, ranging from astonishment and dread to humility and gratitude. Verdi’s Messa da requiem contains all of these ingredients but in different proportions to many other well-known settings. Written by an agnostic, it is more earthly than spiritual in outlook, and fear and trembling predominate. Verdi often sets just three lines at a time and strings them together in a series of miniatures, the Dies irae returning three times to punctuate the fast-changing scenes with a sense of terror.

Xian Zhang © Nora Roitberg
Xian Zhang
© Nora Roitberg

All of this presents the performers with challenges: they must hop from one three-line miniature to the next, shifting gears frequently and conjuring new moods in an instant. The choir and orchestra more than rose to the task whilst the soloists fell short. This led to an unbalanced performance that was superlative in places and disappointing in others.

“La Verdi” were on top form, and it was immediately clear that tonight’s performance would be a classy one from them. The cellos’ first exquisite entry emerged from nowhere and unfurled as the rest of the strings crept in.

Erina Gambarini’s chorus were hard to fault, and they ranged from dark and foreboding in the grumbled opening to frightening in the Rex tremendae and resplendent in the fugal Sanctus. It was particularly exciting to hear a chorus in which the tenors were so strong – their top notes were a wall of sound.

Coordinating this from the podium was director Zhang Xian who has recently returned from conducting La forza del destino at the Washington National Opera. Her liberal yet controlled style was a joy to watch, and this was especially so in the Dies irae where she drove on the performers rather than trying to hold them back. This did not compromise the balance and the choir, often submerged in this section, rang through cleanly. Zhang was extremely active in drawing out little details, and she employed a pronounced and completely together ritenuto that drew back the tide and made the next barrage of notes even more immense. By keeping up the intensity in the choir’s hushed, spat-out words at Quantus tremor est futurus, the subsequent Tuba mirum was overwhelming. Here we were bombarded by trumpets arranged antiphonally in the gallery.

After this strident opening some insensitive singing from the soloists caused the music to fray. In the Agnus Dei duet soprano Chiara Angella and mezzo-soprano Agunda Kulaeva produced clunky, shapeless lines and this did nothing to evoke the the image of pastoral humility achieved by the choir when they took over the melody. Tenor Mario Zeffiri, who featured in Riccardo Muti’s recent live broadcast of the Requiem with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and tonight stood in for Roman Sadnik, produced a strained Ingemisco in which the technical demands left no space for the expression of the plaintive supplication required here.

There were some stronger moments from the soloists. Kulaeva was moving in the signature Liber scriptus and we were treated to her impressive, steely sound. Bass Alexander Vassiliev was strong throughout and particularly so in Mors stupebit (“death and nature shall be stunned”) where he sounded like a stunned creature emerging from the devastating rubble of the preceding Tuba mirum.

Missed opportunities from the soloists took nothing away from La Verdi’s achievement. Tonight’s concert had a celebratory air – not only is it the bicentenary of Verdi, but it is also the 20th anniversary of the orchestra and the 15th of the choir – and they performed with the all of the commitment worthy of such an occasion. The closing Libera me was fervid, and they showed great skill in the contemplative ending which fizzled away to nothing. Their reverence for this music was discernible from moments of elation on the musicians’ faces, savouring Verdi’s indulgent lines, and their enthusiasm filtered into the hall. With better singing from the soloists this could have been the exceptional all-round performance it deserved to be.

****1