Every once in a while, I hear a concert that grips me from the first note and doesn’t let go until the very last. Daniele Gatti and the Philharmonia’s performance of Verdi’s Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall was such a concert.

Philharmonia Chorus at Kings College, Cambridge in April 2011, © Clive Boursnell
Philharmonia Chorus at Kings College, Cambridge in April 2011,
© Clive Boursnell

There are some caveats to make: I’m not catholic, I’m not very religious and I’m not particularly steeped in the tradition of liturgical music. Were I any of these things, Verdi’s music might have been uncomfortable – because in a sense, the Requiem is a work that is highly disrespectful to the traditions of organised religion. There is no pristine heavenly serenity, no palliative in Jesus for the fear of death: Verdi’s music amplifies a thousand times the raw terror contained in the words of the liturgy.

As I child, in common with many Jewish children, I spent countless hours following Hebrew liturgy and failing to discern its meaning; I suspect that catholic children across the ages have done the same with Latin (if anyone reading this has direct experience, please confirm or deny this in the Disqus pages below). I will personally guarantee that anyone listening to this performance of the Requiem could not have failed to absorb the meaning of the text. When the day of wrath descended, it did so to thunderous crashes of brass and drums that make you jump out of your skin. When the chorus sang of trembling before the judge on judgement day, the sibilance of “discussurus” sent shivers up your spine. The wondrous trumpet sounded in the clearest, most military of clarion calls. When the contralto (the excellent Marie-Nicole Lemieux) sang of the book which contains all for which the world shall be judged (Liber scriptus proferetur), sinners in the audience would have shuddered at the venom in her voice. When soprano Krassimira Stoyanova sang her part of the Recordare – the plea that Jesus shall remember the sinner – her voice would have melted the coldest heart. I could name a dozen more instances where the word setting came through with extraordinary power.

Credit goes to all the performers. With the greatest respect to the fine opera house orchestras that I have heard playing Verdi over the years, it’s a different experience to hear his music performed by a 200 voice choir and a top class symphony orchestra like the Philharmonia in a concert hall unencumbered by an orchestra pit. The music abounds with opportunities for high impact, and conductor Daniele Gatti made the most of them. There was a constant urging pulse in the music; instruments were clearly separated; every section of the orchestra contributed drama, with the brass on particularly fine form. The opening of the Dies Irae achieved its full theatrical impact, with its five bass drum beats underpinning a frantic chorus. There was even attention to detail in the little stage tricks: when three of the soloists (representing humble sinners) sang the question “to whom shall I turn for advocacy”, the Philharmonia Chorus rose to their feet in an instant to switch into Rex tremendae (“King of dread majesty”) as if to answer.

Throughout the work, the chorus produced a sensational amount of sound, doing so with clear diction and well defined variation of expression. The four soloists were equally clear and expressive, as well as being audible for the majority of the time, something which is always difficult to achieve for solo singers standing immediately in front of a large orchestra. Although, as you would expect of Verdi, the Requiem sounds like opera rather than like church music, it didn’t come across as a star vehicle: of the soloists, tenor Francesco Meli sounded the most operatic, with an open and generous tone and a certain throwaway rashness to his voice.

The Requiem was Verdi’s response to death of the writer Alessandro Manzoni. Verdi was not a conventionally religious man, which is the reason, it seems to me, that this is such a unique work: rather than being the product of a composer working within the tradition of sacred music, this is a great artist from another world pouring all his skill into the expression of grief and fear of death.

Nowhere is this more so than in the closing Libera me. This starts with a recitative-like passage from the soprano – the first such in the work – followed by an arioso piece and then the return of the thunderous chorus of the Dies irae with its five bass drum beats announcing apocalypse. The thunder subsides, and the work ends in a passage of utter calm – after the extremes and passions, the hope of eternal rest for Verdi’s revered Manzoni and for all of us.