Always an imposing sight on the Lighthouse’s concert platform, the massed combination of the BSO Orchestra and Chorus, tightly packed onto the stage, lent an air of excitement and anticipation even before the music-making began. Verdi’s Requiem received its first performance in 1874 at the church of San Marco in Milan, being conducted by the composer himself. Despite the mixed reception it received, not least because of its tangibly operatic feel, it has come to be a much-loved work of unique power and beauty.

Kirill Karabits © Sasha Gusov
Kirill Karabits
© Sasha Gusov

A hushed, expressive opening Requiem and Kyrie, beautifully shaped by Kirill Karabits with his eloquent conducting style literally crafting the sound, created a mood of peace and repose. Of particular note here, and throughout the work, was the incredible singing talent of Aga Mikolaj. 

The vigour and energy of the terrifying eruption which followed with the Dies irae was no surprise from a conductor with Karabits’ passion – crisp, brilliantly directed, all on stage played and sang as one. As the eruption subsided, we were treated to some very fine brass playing from both on and off-stage trumpets – the balance was spot on and the performance was delivered with meticulous attention to detail, heralding the thrilling build-up to the Tuba mirum. At the point where the music suddenly stops at its apex and changes direction, Karabits controlled Verdi’s sense of the theatrical with total authority and accuracy.

The Liber scriptus, beautifully sung by Mariana Pentcheva, was full of the requisite operatic passion and fire with well-controlled, hushed Dies irae interjections from the Chorus, reminding us that trouble was never very far away. Scurrying strings hurled us into a fierce return of the Dies irae, briskly subsiding to a wistful Quid Sum Miser, beautifully balanced between Mikolaj, Barry Banks and the obbligato bassoon. A grand (and not a little terrifying) Rex tremendae was breath-taking with Mikolaj’s incredible voice soaring above the combined forces.

The gentle Recordare duet between Mikolaj and Pentcheva was enchanting and most moving with well-judged orchestral support in a beautifully shaped and crafted performance. Next came an Ingemisco of piercing clarity and conviction by Banks with a fine, accompanying oboe solo, followed by a dramatic Confutatis maledictis by bass Alastair Miles; this was duly halted by the full recapitulation of the Dies irae, dispatched, if indeed possible, with even more force and energy than the original statement. An outpouring of lamentation followed, delivered first by the soloists and then chorus in the Lacrymosa which was introduced by Pentcheva in an impassioned outpouring of emotion. The ending to this section was superbly controlled with skilful dynamic shading.

The Offertorio, a truly beautiful interlude for soloists and orchestra, was light, delicate and expressive, played out with real style and panache, building to an dramatic outpouring of hope, then gradually fading away to an atmospheric orchestral postlude. A vital, crisp and energetic Sanctus was dispatched at a cracking pace with nicely controlled dynamic shading which never slipped into over-indulgence or excess. The peaceful Agnus Dei, introduced by Mikolaj and Pentcheva, was smooth, well-balanced and well-articulated. The delicacy of the huge chorus echoing the soloists was light and subtle, superbly controlled by Karabits.

Three of the soloists (Pentcheva, Banks and Miles) were showcased in the Lux aeterna, set against a threatening backdrop of dark accompaniment from the BSO. A great sense of urgency was created by Mikolaj in the truly operatic opening of the Libera me, followed by a mood of hushed fear produced by the chorus and orchestra. The exhilarating re-statement of the Dies irae was as though Karabits had literally summoned the forces of hell from deep below the Lighthouse, such was the shattering explosion of energy he released on-stage. With his customary flair for stage-craft, all were just as suddenly silenced with the return of unaccompanied soprano and orchestra. Throughout the work and especially in this final section, Mikolaj had demonstrated her huge range, passion and power – a truly magnificent performer, her voice repeatedly soaring above the joint forces. The chorus soon took over with a tightly worked fugue with crisp flourishes and were accompanied by orchestra with great aplomb. The whisper of an ending held the audience rapt long after the music ended until Karabits slowly lowered his hands to the rostrum.

Not just an extraordinary piece of music, smoothly combining the operatic and sacred into a convincing work of devotion and remembrance, but a truly extraordinary performance which will be long-remembered.