London Philharmonic/Neeme Järvi – Dvořák’s Requiem

Requiem, Op.89

Lisa Milne (soprano)
Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)
Peter Auty (tenor)
Peter Rose (bass)

London Philharmonic Choir

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Neeme Järvi

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 7 February, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Neeme Järvi. ©Järvi ArchivesOpportunities to hear Dvořák’s grand “Requiem” are few and far between, so this was undoubtedly a special occasion. Though certainly not modest in scope – the work calls for large orchestra, chorus, organ, and four vocal soloists, clocking in at just over 90 minutes – it has, in modern times, been eclipsed by more dramatic and melodically memorable settings such as Verdi’s, Berlioz’s and Mozart’s. Perhaps another reason for the neglect of Dvořák’s setting is that it has little of the idiomatic folksy charm of his well-known orchestral and chamber works. Yet Dvořák evidently invested much in the work, imbuing it with striking musical cohesion, and it stands as an intense and potentially profoundly moving masterpiece.

In this first-rate performance, the intense power of the “Requiem” shone as it has probably rarely – if ever – done before. From the quiet, serious opening (a unison statement of the ‘Requiem’ motif which runs through the score) through turbulence and, finally, the sweet prayers of its close, everyone performing was 100-percent committed to the music.

Under Neeme Järvi’s inspirational direction, the London Philharmonic played magnificently. The brass was impressively solid, often sending a shiver down the spine – especially when aided, as in the menacing but never histrionic ‘Tuba mirum’, by the glorious Royal Festival Hall organ. Sweet woodwind sonorities delighted in the wistful introduction to the ‘Offertory’ (reminiscent of Dvořák’s Serenade, Opus 44), and strings were radiant in the romantic, almost Elgarian, sweep of the ‘Agnus Dei’.

Karen Cargill. Photograph:  Sloane Photography The team of soloists was excellent: uniformly strong voices that blended with rare sensitivity, at home with the work’s varied styles – from haunting echoes of plainchant to emotional operatic moments – and projecting with ease over the orchestra from in front of the choir. The lyrical ‘Recordare’ quartet stood out, the writing rich in glimpses of the human warmth that was shortly to blossom in Dvořák’s ‘American’ style.

The London Philharmonic Choir was responsive, precise and full-toned. As often with large amateur choruses, a few more basses would not have gone amiss, nor would a touch more dynamism in the more agitated passages. But the singers displayed remarkable fluency, the Choir’s full-might thrilling in the vigorous ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ fugue – surprisingly, the only one in the work but, with its distinctively Czech-inflected principal subject, its uplifting brilliance rivals anything in Brahms’s “A German Requiem”.

Written to commission from the Birmingham Festival, where it was premiered in 1891, Dvořák’s “Requiem” is a product of the late-Victorian vogue for large-scale, earnest choral works. Tastes change, of course (time has not looked kindly on the likes of once ubiquitously popular works such as Arthur Sullivan’s “The Golden Legend”), but Dvořák’s Requiem remains as far more than a monument to passing fads. Yes, there are a few turgid passages; and some movements seem to end rather abruptly. But it is also full of marvellous musical invention, and the work has a sincerity and conviction that speak to parts of the soul which Verdi et al cannot reach. Järvi and company are to be congratulated on having faith in this music, and for showing that it deserves a more frequent place in the concert repertory. Presumably (and hopefully) the performance was recorded for the LPO’s CD label.

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