Verdi's Requiem brings with it a huge sense of occasion. Turned to at times of national tragedy, it communicates an emotional power where the words of politicians frequently fail. It is also a ceremonial work. Last week it brought the BBC Proms proper to a close (ahead of the Last Night's shenanigans), while yesterday it launched the London Symphony Orchestra's new season with tremendous fanfare. Gianandrea Noseda conducted a gripping performance high on drama, living up to Hans von Bülow's description of the Requiem as “an opera in ecclesiastical garb”.
There are few Verdi conductors today to match Noseda. He lives and breathes the music. It courses through his veins. Dynamics were stretched to the fullest extent. The opening emerged out of a true silence (impossible in the Royal Albert Hall), while hellfire and damnation blazed around the Barbican as the splendid LSO brass let rip. Noseda was at his most animated, never shirking away from a grand gesture, knees flexing, springing on the podium. Floating palms wafted the music to softness, as he mouthed the text, drawing his fingers to his lips. He drove Verdi's score at a frightening pace – sometimes faster than his soloists wanted – injecting energy at every turn. The Dies irae was terrifically vehement.
Despite a soggy entry in the Agnus Dei, the London Symphony Chorus sang with authority, weight and explosive power, particularly after the soloists' initial entry. But the laurels in this performance went to the London Symphony Orchestra itself. The woodwinds shone, from Olivier Stankiewicz's beautifully turned oboe phrases in the Ingemisco to Adam Walker's lilting flute in the Hostias (so reminiscent of Aida's Nile Scene) to the quartet of bassoons, intoning their priestly chants in the Libera me. Double bass pizzicatos struck like tolling bells in the Lux aeterna.
The work which best supports von Bülow's claim that the Requiem is essentially an opera is Aida. The Requiem shares the same musical language: grand processional music of triumph; a severe judgement scene; mournful prayer; and release through death. Moreover, three of the soloists at the Requiem's first performance in 1874 (Teresa Stolz, Maria Waldmann and Ormondo Maini) had sung principal roles in the European première of Aida two years earlier. (Tenor Giuseppe Capponi was scheduled to sing Radamès but had withdrawn due to illness.) Therefore, when I hear the Requiem, I listen for soloists capable of taking those Aida roles.
Of the quartet gathered here, mezzo Daniela Barcellona has sung Amneris, but she sounded underpowered here. Her warm lower register and sensitive phrasing offered balm in the Recordare, but essentially she is a Rossini specialist, like Michele Pertusi, whose charcoal bass was too soft-grained, despite sympathetic phrasing in the Confutatis. Given the way his voice has grown recently, tenor Francesco Meli could be a Radamès-in-waiting, his full-throated, forward sound superb in a honeyed Ingemisco. Erika Grimaldi has a pleasant soprano, not unlike Mirella Freni in timbre, but streaked with dark molasses. In the Agnus Dei she displayed a worrying tendency to swoop up to notes, but she delivered a fervent, searching Libera me.
With virtuosic playing, Noseda extracted every ounce of drama from this Verdian masterpiece. Small wonder that the conductor kissed the score at the end.
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