The Proms Choral Sundays series moved from last week’s dramatic opening (Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony) to the more familiar but no less spectacular territory of Verdi’s Requiem. Since 1956, this has been a Proms regular, with 16 previous performances, including a run of five in the eight years from 1956 to 1963. Although it was first performed in a church (San Marco, in Milan, 1874) it was repeated in La Scala three days later to a rapturous reception, and has since found its natural home in the opera house or concert hall rather than church. Verdi conducted the English premiere in the Royal Albert Hall in 1875, with a chorus of over 1000 and an orchestra of 140.

© BBC/Chris Christodoulou
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Verdi was, at best, agnostic and may have been atheist, so it is interesting to speculate on his personal motivation for writing such a work – he referred to it as “that devil of a Mass”. It is usually seen as his bringing the world of opera into church music, but it also reflects his strong Italian nationalism, the two topics combined by the dual influences of the death of Rossini, Italy’s most famous opera composer before Verdi, and Manzoni, a writer and politician and friend of Verdi. But there are several moments during the work when his own ambivalence towards Christianity may have been revealed, not least in the enigmatic ending with the words Libera me (Deliver me) not quite having the absolute surety that his original audience might have wanted. And the contrast of the pleas for eternal rest with Verdi’s depiction of the sheer terror of his vision of the Day of Wrath (Dies irae) can have done little to comfort the Christian mind.

The opening of the work highlights this contrast. Verdi marks the opening plea Requiem aeternam done eis (Grant them eternal rest) sotto voce, and it was almost whispered by the huge choir against a mournful descending motif on the strings, sounding very far from the confident assumption that might be expected. The entire work centres around Verdi’s contrast between these desperate pleas for post-mortal redemption and his vision of the absolute horror of the day of judgement. Not, for me, a very good advert for Christianity. The combined forces of the BBC Symphony Chorus, the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the London Philharmonic Choir made a magnificent job of projecting the wide tonal range, notably in the many quieter moments and in the complex double fugue of the Sanctus.

The four soloists reflected a wide range of vocal styles, with soprano Marina Poplavskaya taking top honours on so many counts. Her clean projection, with limited use of vibrato, was exemplary, notably in the soaring lines of the Lacrimosa, but it was the emotional depth of her voice in the concluding Libera me that will be one of the abiding memories of this concert. Joseph Calleja, tenor and Ferruccio Furlanetto, bass made fine contrasting contributions, with Calleja beating Furlanetto hands down in the ‘how to trill’ moment in the Hostias section of the Offertory. In Furlanetto’s singing of Oro supplex et acclinis, you could hear the fear of the supplicant believer, in absolute terror of the appalling afterlife that he had been led to believe could be in store for him. For my tastes, the mezzo Mariana Pentcheva’s uncontrolled vibrato was excessive, even by the normal Verdi opera standards. As well as the inevitable rhythmic disruption, the massive pulses in her voice wreaked havoc with her intonation, although I assume the correct notes were in there somewhere.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra seemed to be lifted even beyond their usual excellent playing, with particular mention due to Kathleen Stevenson, piccolo, and Graham Sheen, bassoon, for their contributions. One nice feature of the brass section was the use of a cimbasso, a type of contrabass trombone that looks as though it was designed to be played around corners. Conductor Semyon Bychkov was inspiring, lifting all the performers to extraordinary heights and importing a compelling emotional depth to this extraordinary work. In the first performance, as well as all the female singers being required by the church to sing behind a screen, in head-to-toe black, with black funeral veils, all applause was banned. It seemed as though Semyon Bychkov was trying to encourage a similar situation in the Albert Hall, with his almost embarrassingly extended pause at the end, only spoilt for me by an enormous cough from the box just behind me.

As with all BBC Proms, it is available to listen again for a week after the concert, and a televised version is planned for 21 August on BBC Four at 7.30.

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