It's June, so the sun is in the sky, the days are getting hot and orchestral seasons are ending. This was the final concert of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s season, and they decided to go out with a bang. However, I wish that some of the summer’s heat had found its way into this performance of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, because it was one of those evenings where the components intermittently shone, but rarely cohered as a whole.

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Thomas Søndergård
© Andy Buchanan

Part of that was due to coordination. This is the largest chorus I remember seeing on the Usher Hall stage in a long time: 190 singers together with a large orchestra and soloists, and the sense of connection between them was rarely as tight as it should have been. That was a particular issue with the four soloists, who were frequently out of sync with conductor Thomas Søndergård’s beat. That’s forgivable in the work’s opening stages as nerves settle and the adrenaline kicks in, but it was a problem right up to the end of the Hostias, suggesting that not enough had been ironed out in rehearsal.

By far the strongest of the soloists was mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston, who sang with extraordinary vitality and a keen sense of the music’s theatrical elements though, curiously, she avoided her climactic top note in the Liber scriptus. Gabriela Scherer’s soprano sounded tight and a little shrill throughout the Sequenza, and Peter Auty’s tenor was constrained and uncomfortable, particularly as he reached for his top notes. His Ingemisco was not a comfortable listen. Nor did I enjoy the nasal tone of George Andguladze’s bass; his Confutatis lacked confidence, and rushed at it as though keen to get it over with. Things improved later. Andguladze’s vocal colour suited the baleful declamations of the Lux aeterna much better, and Scherer made a strong protagonist in the Libera me

The RSNO Chorus sang with heft and power in the big moments – the ear-splitting Tuba mirum was the evening’s high-octane highlight – but struggled to find the right tone for the whispered opening. They had all the notes for the Sanctus’ fugue but didn’t find quite enough agility to make it bounce. The Libera me’s counterpoint suited them much better.

Søndergård usually has a terrific ear for musical drama, but his shaping of Verdi’s ecclesiastical theatre felt tentative and uncertain, rarely making the most out of the music’s ebb and flow so that several significant moments passed for very little. The end of the Rex tremendae didn’t brim over with fulfilment in the way that it really needs to, for example, and the final chords of the Lacrymosa sounded perfunctory. 

The only element that was consistently great was the playing of the RSNO, not just in the hell-for-leather climaxes of the Dies irae, but also in the quieter moments like the gently curling winds of the Quid sum miser, or the celestial cellos that opened the Hostias, gorgeous in their evocation of heavenly consolation. The players acquitted themselves superbly in this season finale, but this Verdi Requiem was too earthbound to touch the heights.