Guildhall School of Music & Drama – Verdi Requiem

Messa da Requiem

Judith Howarth (soprano), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano), Peter Wedd (tenor) & Robert Hayward (baritone)

Guildhall Symphony Chorus & Orchestra
Paolo Olmi

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 26 September, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

I wonder how many times I’ve taken the Moorgate walkway through the Barbican and have gazed, always with admiration, often with envy, at students in the well-equipped practice-rooms of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, honing their particular techniques to perfection. At least, I hope that‘s what they’re doing. The results, both in operatic and orchestra repertoire, have always been of a very high standard. Well, there was the thick end of 400 of them, including 215 new intakes, crammed on to the Barbican Hall stage, with barely enough room to swing a soloist.

This was always going to be a primary-colour Verdi “Requiem”. The choral sound was strong and even, terrifyingly loud as required, but not quite achieving that almost palpable wall of barely-audible sound Verdi reaches for in his more extreme dynamic demands. In terms of pure élan and confidence, the two big fugues in the ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Libera me’ went with a will, clearly pointed and athletically sung, and the sheer force of the ‘Dies irae’ was like a sonic centrifuge, pinning the audience to the back of the auditorium.

The orchestra playing was just as assured, the 66-strong string section producing a solid, responsive sound, and there was beefy playing from the brass, the two off-stage bands placed either side of the Circle creating an awesome sense of empty space for the ‘Tuba mirum‘. Among the excellent woodwind players, there was an impressively bleak bassoon obbligato for the ‘Quid sum miser‘.

The soloists pumped up the intensity of this very operatic religious drama. Robert Hayward, whose voice sounds more focussed, more richly coloured and more flexible every time I hear it, was superbly declamatory and defiant in ‘Confutatis maledictis‘. Peter Wedd, who really ran with the Italianate flavour of the music, sung out generously, with graceful phrasing, an expressive mezza voce and a fair few operatic sobs. Catherine Wyn-Rogers was a strong, anchoring presence throughout the long ‘Dies irae’ sequence and was magnificently centred in the austere ‘Agnus Dei‘. Last but by no means least, Judith Howarth (replacing the indisposed Elizabeth Connell, who was scheduled to make a rare appearance in the UK) was in commanding form, not least in the overtly operatic ‘Libera me‘, in which she led choir and orchestra to the work’s shattering climax.

It would be hard to imagine a more full-blooded Verdi “Requiem”, full of heart-on-sleeve sacred anxiety, and with a vivid realisation of Italian terribilita. Paolo Olmi steered his huge forces through the big structural moments – the baleful reprises of the ‘Dies irae’ material, the sense of the music yielding to the inevitable at the end of that sequence, the short spell of seraphic energy and relaxation of the ‘Sanctus‘, before the return to doubt and fear in the ‘Libera me’.

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