To begin at the end: Teodor Currentzis closed this performance with an extended period of silence every bit as long as John Cage’s calling card for piano. Necessary meditation at the end of a religious masterwork gave way to furtive shuffling as time went by and still the members of MusicAeterna remained motionless, frozen in the position from which they had delivered their final notes. The audience was at a loss: should it applaud these brave souls? A smattering of clapping petered out and the answer was negative. Surely it was nearly over? No. Until at last it was, whereupon collective relief was palpable. When Currentzis finally lowered his hands and the violinists their aching arms, the Grand Théâtre de Provence erupted into a standing ovation that had been churning inside several hundred of the maestro’s admirers. It was heartfelt enough, but the long wait upped the ante into something akin to an evangelical happening, with Currentzis as Billy Graham or Elmer Gantry, au choix. But I guess that’s show business.

Teodor Currentzis © Nadia Rosenberg
Teodor Currentzis
© Nadia Rosenberg

Verdi’s Requiem is hardly liturgical, its mood scarcely more devout than The Sicilian Vespers, so that last line is less blasphemous than it might appear. This was an audience-friendly performance from the word go, with first the chorus then the orchestra entering in solemnity and assuming their places with ramrod rectitude. Everyone wore black cassocks and all the instrumentalists bar the cellists stood for the duration. The conductor himself broke the pomposity by ushering in his soloists (in normal attire) and taking a flamboyant bow. Clad in a black housecoat, skinny black trousers and black Doc Martin’s, he was the tallest Goth in the place.

Sandwiched between these vulgar pieces of theatre an astounding performance of the Requiem unfolded. The musicians were impassioned, engaged and energised into a single force, and the searing account gained substantially from the players’ freedom of movement as they stood, swayed and literally threw themselves into the music. The fortunate choristers were able to sit down from time to time but not the orchestra. It was a thrilling thing to witness, both visually and aurally.

The two male soloists possessed all the fire and responsiveness Currentzis can have wished for. Dmytro Popov’s delivery of the Ingemisco was outstandingly fine, simultanously lyrical and explosive, while Tareq Nazmi gave a foretaste of pauses to come with a dramatised triple-stasis around a dread-filled “Mors” in Mors stupebit. Neither of the female artists was as comfortable, alas. Soprano Zarina Abaeva had a rich, clear vocal quality but was inattentive to the conductor’s tempo indications and tended to drag the pace back, notably in the Recordare, while the performance of Hemine May (mezzo-soprano) was hampered by poor articulation and a lack of textual engagement. There is so much more to be unearthed in the Lacrymosa than she managed to find. More crucially, her voice failed to blend with Abaeva’s in the Agnus Dei and one of the work’s most seraphic passages arrived sounding curdled.

I do not for one moment question the conductor’s musical bona fides, neither his skill nor his interpretational discretion, nor indeed his charismatic gift for marshalling large musical forces. Yes, this was an explosive Requiem; but it served Verdi, not the moment. It was thrilling to see the strong thread of connection between Currentzis and his players, an attentiveness that never seemed to falter. Setting aside the meretricious goings-on after the performance the whole experience more than deserved its roaring applause, and by extension its fourth star. What an event.

Mark's travel to Aix was funded by the Festival de Pâques