Performances of Verdi’s operatic Requiem are always a major event and a cause for celebration. The New York Philharmonic, under the direction of Alan Gilbert, presented the program on three consecutive evenings. On the third and final evening, the orchestra, the chorus and the four soloists – one a last minute but highly effective replacement – were all in great form and did full justice to the great work that celebrates the human spirits.

Angela Meade © Dario Acosta
Angela Meade
© Dario Acosta

Avery Fisher Hall, the home to New York Philharmonic, is not known for its acoustics. On this evening, the orchestra sounds often came across as harsh and metallic, especially at the beginning. The hall is also perhaps too large for some of the more intimate moments of the piece; the hush that begins and ends the Requiem did not come across as ethereally as one would wish. The brass and winds sections tended to dominate the strings. These constraints were easier to overlook in the louder sections of music. The Dies irae with its thundering chorus, the Tuba mirum with trumpets placed on both sides of the balcony, and the Sanctus were especially impressive and the orchestra and the chorus gave their all amid the volume.  

Mr Gilbert’s conducting was more deliberate and unhurried than urgent throughout, which suited the overall grandeur of the work. As he states in the playbill, Mr Gilbert approaches the Requiem as an operatic work with religious text, not a religious work, and his straightforward reading of the score underlines his view. One would have wished for more subtlety and nuance in the slower, quiet sections, however. Most of the fine-tuning seemed to come from volume control, and not from shift in tempi and color that would have communicated more emotional depth. Nevertheless, he maintained his strong control of the orchestra, and at times communicated closely with the soloists to guide and encourage their singing, in keeping with the notion that this is a theatrical work by an operatic master.

It was the work of the soloists that provided the necessary nuance and subtlety. The two low voices were especially impressive. Bass-baritone Eric Owens capitalized on his all too brief moments, and his warm voice came across as even throughout the register and penetrated one’s heart. His legato phrasing was clear and strong, and most appropriate to the religious text. His solemn voice and demeanor were appropriate underpinning of the often profound words he was singing.

The President of the Philharmonic announced from the stage right before the start that the scheduled mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikii, who sang the first two performances, fell ill and was replaced with Daniela Barcellona, in town to rehearse for the upcoming Met opera La donna del lago. Her experience clearly showed despite the fact that she may not even have had a rehearsal. It took her a few minutes to warm up, with her lower notes unsettled and high notes wavering. However, Ms Barcellona soon gave a superb performance, with her understanding of, and connection with, the text and music apparent throughout. Her middle voice was particularly rich and beautiful and she expressed the dramatic subtlety of the work by agile shading of her voice. Her voice also had a penetrating quality, and came across loud and clear amid ensemble with other soloists and the chorus.

The tenor Russell Thomas impressed with his fine grained tenor voice but unfortunately seemed to lack the finesse and robustness needed for Verdi’s operatic music. The Ingemisco is one of the most famous tenor solos in Italian music, and while Mr Thomas rose to the occasion and sang with fresh and ardent voice, his high notes lacked the otherworldly quality, as he seemed to rely on his chest voice.

Some of the best moments of singing came in quiet moments of duets and trios, often in unaccompanied. Soprano Angela Meade’s voice blended especially nicely with that of Ms Barcellona, and their Recordare duet, as well as the Agnus Dei, were at times breathtakingly beautiful. Mr Thomas was an important contributor to the trio Quid sum miser and Lux aeterna.

The New York Choral Artists, directed by Joseph Flummerfelt, was the splendid fifth voice of the performance. From the very first quiet and mournful utterance of “Requiem” through to the thunderous Dies irae to the last Libera me, the men and women of the chorus sang with unflagging energy, enthusiasm and beauty. They deservedly received a loud ovation from the audience at the end of the performance.

For all the great orchestral, choral and solo work, the success of a Requiem performance hinges on the last piece, originally a separate piece composed by Verdi, the Libera me, sung by a soprano accompanied quietly by the chorus and orchestra. Ms Angela Meade, whose high notes occasionally verged on shrillness earlier, pulled off some intensely focused and elegant singing. Her phrasing was urgent and agitated in the beginning, then slowly she settled into the contemplative beauty of the score. Her high notes were rich and full, with few noticeable register breaks. She successfully pulled off an impressive high C towards the end, an appropriate apotheosis to a performance which had more emphasis on the dramatic and operatic side of Verdi’s Requiem than on its religious and solemn aspects.