Forest Philharmonic – Verdi Requiem (16 Feb)

Messa da Requiem

Cara O’Sullivan (soprano)
Anne-Marie Owens (mezzo-soprano)
Adrian Thompson (tenor)
Andrew Greenan (bass)

Crouch End Festival Chorus
Hertfordshire Chorus

Forest Philharmonic Orchestra
Mark Shanahan

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 16 February, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Verdi’s Requiem is such a staple of the repertoire, enthusiastically enjoyed by performers and audiences alike, and yet there is an elusive quality to the work, which is difficult to capture. This could be circumscribed as a certain inherent ’Italianate’ character, which is such a defining feature of Verdi’s operas. Like each of his stage works, the Requiem has a ’tinta’ all its own, or perhaps it would be truer to say that the various movements have their own colours, from brazen to more sombre and muted. Under the level-headed guidance of Mark Shanahan, the combined choruses and the Forest Philharmonic Orchestra gave a direct, clear-cut view of this passionate piece, thoroughly efficient in execution and yet, ultimately, failing to scale all the heights – and depths – of Verdi’s vision.

The opening ’Requiem’ movement began directly and cleanly – no Giulini-like misty, mysterious emerging here – and the efficiency of the chorus was immediately apparent, with clipped diction and firmly placed consonants which were features throughout, almost to the point of pedantry if not mannerism. Good robust singing was to be heard in the unaccompanied ’Te decet hymnus’. The solo quartet, which makes its first appearance at the ’Kyrie eleison’ revealed its qualities straight away. I was surprised to read that Adrian Thompson “is particularly noted” for his performances of Verdi’s Requiem since this singer, who I have admired and appreciated in other repertoire, does not have the requisite timbre so necessary for this solo tenor part. It is hard to imagine him singing one of Verdi’s operatic tenor parts and such a voice is called for here. Indeed Thompson demonstrated an alarming beat in the voice at times, which seemed to suggest that his resources were strained to its limits and I hope for his sake that he does not venture further into a heavy operatic repertory. Andrew Greenan was firm and forthright, if lacking the profound gravitas that some basses have demonstrated. Anne-Marie Owens was dignified and restrained – perhaps too much so at times – and revealed a comfortable maternal tone, warmly expressive. Cara O’Sullivan was a superb, encompassing the varied requirements of this taxing part – beseeching, imploring, impassioned and expressive.

The ’Dies irae’ had all the power it needs, but did not convey the sheer sense of terror Verdi surely requires. His lacerating, apocalyptic vision of the Day of Judgement needs a greater sense of consternation and alarm, not just healthy forthright singing. The bass drum was a modest instrument and thus the moments where it’s required to add depth to the full ensemble failed to make the full impression. There was an unfortunate fluff in the offstage trumpets’ first entry in the ’Tuba mirum’ which was momentarily disconcerting, otherwise the men of the chorus gave a good account of themselves. The most effective passages in this long movement, with its contrasted sections, were, on the whole, the more reflective ones. Having said which, Anne-Marie Owens delivered a most imperious ’Liber scriptus’, supported by some excellent brass playing which did not overwhelm the singer. The reservations already noted about Adrian Thompson were, sadly, brought to the fore in the ’Ingemisco’ that, to some extent, might be considered the emotional core of the whole work, certainly of this movement. His final phrase leading to a most effortful top B flat was not pleasant to hear. The final portion, ’Lacrymosa’, had an admirable sense of a world-weary trudge, though at the climax, as elsewhere, Shanahan’s insistence on maintaining a strict tempo was to the detriment of music where a greater sense of amplitude and expansion is implicit in the score.

One noticed in the ’Offertorio’ that the soloists, as so often in this piece, were not especially well-matched as a quartet, thus affecting blend and balance, but the tempo, on the swift side, was well-judged and made for an effective contrast with the weightier movement which preceded it. The ’Sanctus’ was convincing – the virtuosic playing and, especially, choral singing being noteworthy, with light, ethereal quiet passages alternating with brazen power, even if the final syncopated passage didn’t quite come off.

Soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists were at one in the notoriously difficult octave phrases that begin the ’Agnus Dei’ and the sense of calm that prevailed throughout this section was persuasive. A darker, more restive atmosphere than was given on this occasion is really required in the ’Lux Aeterna’, although Andrew Greenan was suitably doleful in the bass’s troubled utterances. It is a remarkable fact to recall that the final movement – ’Libera me’ – was, in effect, the starting point for the whole Requiem, conceived as it was initially for a requiem, to be penned by many hands, in memory of Rossini. In its familiar context, it is the natural summation of all that has gone before, culminating as it does in one of the most powerful fugues in the choral repertoire. Here, the thrusting, dynamic singing was thrilling, and Cara O’Sullivan soared effortlessly above, intense and impassioned, whilst earlier she had been supplicatory in the quiet, a cappella, prayerful music. She conveyed real operatic fervour in the unashamedly operatic music Verdi composed in this movement and, whilst Shanahan once again kept the music on a tight leash, this account of the ’Libera Me’ was alternately stirring and moving and showed the collective strengths of the performers under his charge.

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