In the 1960s, the world of classical music relished in the microtonal scores of Morton Feldman and Luigi Nono. This was not the world of Nino Rota, who spoke of "the tragedy of listening" in reference to the listener estranged in a tangle of cold, academic references. Rota is best known for the soundtracks that added sparkle to Fellini's films, yet his sizeable orchestral output is only now starting to generate interest, thanks to the dedicated advocacy of conductors like Riccardo Muti, Giuseppe Grazioli and Gianandrea Noseda. At times blazing joyously, at others smouldering in an azure panorama, and always rooted in tonality, Rota's Mysterium is emotive and direct – "Musica Naturalis", as one musicologist friend of Rota's puts it. In tonight's performance, the work's first outing in Milan, and one dedicated to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, La Verdi demonstrated that this most human of works deserves a place on our musical maps.

Giuseppe Grazioli © Giuseppe Grazioli
Giuseppe Grazioli
© Giuseppe Grazioli

It was announced in December that La Verdi face their own tribulations, after the unexpected withdrawal of a government grant has left the orchestra in peril with a sizeable shortfall. In Rota's Mysterium, they could not have found a more fitting rallying cry. Vincenzo Verginelli's text splices biblical texts on The Resurrection and The Communion in a meditation (as opposed to a linear narrative, as we might expect from Rota's classification of the work as an oratorio) on the fraternity of humankind. "Music is the purest form of poetry", wrote Rota, a non-Catholic. "It enjoys the privilege of being truly universal." Mysterium can be read as a homage to music, expressing the all-embracing reach of the art form through the language of Christianity.

Written in 1962, the music is scored for orchestra and four soloists, with a children's choir set alongside the main choir. The music is weaved into a string of musical miniatures with multiple musical referents: fanfare trumpets recall Verdi's Messa da Requiem, whilst Duruflé's setting of the same text could be the inspiration for the linear choral sections that sweep the audience away through their cumulative power (like Durufle, Rota drew heavily on gregorian chant). 

Director Giuseppe Grazioli kept the tension well-stocked with driving tempos, using a broad, heavy beat to tirelessly carve the sound. The coil ratcheted in In principio erat Verbum, a churning march for a strikingly apocalyptic account of The Incarnation of the Word and Life, before dissolving into bass Gianluca Buratto's caressing meditation on The Communion. When this succumbed to the rolling waves of the choir's Unum panem frangimus (we break this bread), broadly brushed entries surged to a euphoric climax with shimmering violins and blistering trumpets. Shifts in gear never jarred under Grazioli's direction; instead, they were part of a singular spiritual journey.  

La Verdi's choirs are a pair of valuable assets. The adults pack a fearsome punch for their modest size, and a few of the blazing climaxes had us wondering where the sound was coming from – the tenors, in particular, raised the roof with stridently turned top notes, sounding as though they might be at home in the opera chorus down the road. The children's choir has an abundance of colour – razor sharp with all of the bumps and grooves audible – and their decidedly European sound is a world away from the blended flutes most famously championed by King's College Choir in Cambridge. Tenor soloist Alessandro Liberatore and mezzo soprano Giuseppina Bridelli provided decent contributions, though the former only gradually regained control after some squeezed singing early on. Soprano Elena Xanthoudakis was a sensation throughout, deftly rattling off runs with remarkable precision in the impish Quemadmodum fuit hoc molitum far (the imagery of a harvest as a metaphor for the dispersal of christianity throughout the world). 

Whilst many oratorios cast the bass as protagonist, here he is the chief supplicant, flying the flag of common humanity and urging the listeners to follow suit. There was studied understanding whirring beneath Buratto's stupendous, rugged voice with its cultivated passaggio. Having performed the piece in 2013 in at the Teatro San Carlo, Napoli, alongside Grazioli and Liberatore also on that occasion, it was clear that he knew his part. From the undulating sweep of the mysterious Iterum dico quia to the regal blare of Haec enim est oblate (this is the sacrifice), Buratto ensured that Rota's music moved to the core.

An emotional volley of applause followed the finale's stupendous incantation of Veni Sancte Spiritus, revealing an appreciation clearly broader in scope than that for solely this committed performance. "Through the diversity of all tongues," roared the choir on coagulated top B flat atop brass scales and unison tugging violins in the style of Shostakovich, "have gathered all peoples in one faith". La Verdi's faithful had gathered in communion with their friends on stage tonight. As the orchestra faces the struggles ahead, it appears that they are not alone.

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