In 1873, the much-loved and widely acclaimed Italian poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni, author of I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), died. Within weeks, Verdi had proposed he should write a Requiem, to be performed in Milan on the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death, 22 May 1874. Most grieving responses from one artist to another focus on hope and comfort, as well as the pain of loss: we might think of Arvo Pärt’s gentle, grieving Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten, or Tennyson’s luxuriously melancholic In Memoriam A.H.H. Verdi, however, chose to dramatise death, focusing on its most fearful aspect for any devout Catholic: the terror of arriving at the Day of Judgement unforgiven. For a packed Proms audience gathered on a balmy London Sunday evening in the Royal Albert Hall, conductor Donald Runnicles marshalled the forces of his BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and the Concert Association of the Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, to produce an appropriately atmospheric account.

Donald Runnicles © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Donald Runnicles
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

From its pianissimo beginning, Runnicles teased out some ineffably soft chords from his strings, allowing them to grow almost imperceptibly but surely into a noble sound which steadily filled the space. Those early chords hold all the hallmark Verdian tones of grief from La traviata; and, as the movements progressed, I kept being reminded of the humanity of La traviata in the Requiem’s saddest and most exquisite moments, the bitterness of Rigoletto in its grimmest ones. Runnicles is now in his sixth year with the BBC SSO: although he will be leaving them next year, his bond with his orchestra is clearly a powerful one. His account brought out the looming shapes and sharp contrasts within Verdi’s music, delicate strings giving way to some visceral brass action, never indulgent or mawkish, but moving us inexorably forward along Verdi’s path of terror and awe. Verdi’s music aims for complete manipulation of our mood throughout: fear, pathos, anticipation and despair are all clearly delineated in his score. In a viciously good Dies irae, the brass section excelled itself, creating a lingering sound picture in the mind with layer on layer of gleaming sound, and elsewhere we benefited from some exhilaratingly ruthless percussion.

Verdi’s Requiem has an impeccable Prom pedigree: Verdi himself conducted its UK première at the Royal Albert Hall, allegedly with a chorus of over 1,000 singers. Although the Concert Association of the Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin were far less numerous, they projected a smooth, disciplined sound which conjured, alternately, the sounds of souls in hellfire and the serene conviction of angels. Runnicles engaged with the Chorus constantly, sculpting their sound with careful modulations of volume and phrasing.

Angela Meade, Karen Cargill, Yosep Kang and Raymond Aceto © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Angela Meade, Karen Cargill, Yosep Kang and Raymond Aceto
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Not all our soloists were altogether consistent, however, which had a tendency to puncture any developing drama on stage. One exception was Raymond Aceto, whose sumptuous bass inhabited his music with natural flair throughout, a subtly Slavic tinge to his delivery making it most enjoyable, recalling the emotional abandon of Russian Orthodox liturgical music. Aceto also contributed significantly to the sense of drama with his commanding stage presence. Soprano Angela Meade gave a smoothly musical performance, at her finest in Libera me, the final movement and the most openly operatic of all. Sounding much more like a queen’s death scene (one of Verdi’s many specialities) than a plea for redemption, Meade delivered her final lines with a superb, tense conviction nearer rage than regret. Elsewhere, however, Meade didn’t have the same dramatic wattage, although her shimmering vibrato allowed her voice to shine inside the quartet in the third (Offertory) movement, while her contribution to Agnus Dei was softly appealing. Karen Cargill, our mezzo-soprano, had a lovely liquid lift to her higher notes, but her performance was marred by an occasional hardness in her voice, and a repeated tendency to swallow, rather than enunciate her words. Cargill did go on to ace Lux Aeterna with wonderful control and superb phrasing, but clarity remained an issue. Yosep Kang, a pleasingly Italianate quality to his clear tenor, didn’t always make his mark on the music despite an accurate and tidy account.

Nevertheless, the Requiem built inexorably towards its glorious climax. Finishing on the dramatic high of a superlative Libera me, Runnicles and his vast crew thoroughly deserved their thunderous applause and repeated curtain calls from a delighted Proms audience.