LSO in New York – Verdi Requiem

Messa da Requiem

Anne Schwanewilms (soprano)
Ildiko Komlosi (mezzo-soprano)
Stuart Neill (tenor)
Orlin Anastassov (bass)

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 28 September, 2005
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

This concert was not only the first of three performances by the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Colin Davis in New York (the others being on 30 September and 2 October), but they were given the additional honor of presenting the opening night program of the “Great Performers“ series entitled “Symphonic Masters: Music of the Spirit”. And a festive occasion it was indeed, with many of the city’s musical luminaries amongst the capacity audience.

From the very beginning, Sir Colin created a duly spiritual atmosphere; the muted cellos seemed to appear out of nowhere, followed by the whole string section providing a soft cushion of sound over which the hushed chorus started intoning “Requiem”. Unfortunately, due by repeated moaning from someone at the back of the auditorium, which persisted throughout this whole opening section, this magic moment was spoiled. One soon forgot about this intrusion though and was drawn into the unfolding performance.

An international quartet of renowned soloists had been selected for this occasion – German soprano Anne Schwanewilms, Hungarian mezzo-soprano Ildiko Komlosi, American tenor Stuart Neill, and Bulgarian bass Orlin Anastassov. Curiously, the women performed with score in hand, while the men sang from memory. According to her biography, “Ms. Schwanewilms has chosen to place the operas of Richard Strauss at the center of her repertoire” which, however, also includes composers as different in vocal demand as Gluck and Wagner. Hers is a very refined and many-nuanced sound, maybe too refined for Verdi at times. The soft notes often started without vibrato, in a style reminiscent of early music, while at the other end of the spectrum one missed the soaring forte high notes of a dramatic soprano. Where she was at her best was the section of the ‘Libera me’ which is accompanied by a cappella chorus only, floating a heavenly B-flat at the end.

In vocal quartets, mezzo-sopranos sometimes get covered up due to the tessitura, but not Ildiko Komlosi. Her powerful instrument allowed her to hold her own at all times in the ensembles, and she delivered her solos with Verdian passion, as well as sensitivity. Tenor Stuart Neill’s biography describes him as “establishing himself as one of the most promising tenors in the world”, and he certainly has a truly ‘tenorial’ ring to his voice. Unfortunately he had a tendency to be somewhat stentorian, and giving too much too soon. Where Verdi asks for a final, glorious ascending last phrase, such as in the ‘Ingemisco’, he had no place left to go. Once he scaled back and took a chance on singing a mezza voce ‘Hostias’, the result was quite touching.

Bringing a distinctly Eastern European sound to Verdi, bass Orlin Anastassov provided the other bookend, matching the soprano in lyricism. His was a very sensitive performance, although one wished for more projection as an underpinning for the ensembles.

Sir Colin Davis, three days after his 78th-birthday, conducted with all the power and passion one expects for this work in an exquisitely paced performance, as well as bringing out many beautiful, delicate nuances. Chief Conductor of the LSO, Davis effortlessly inspired this great orchestra to perform at its peak in all aspects: ranging from the mysterious, hushed opening to the ‘Dies Irae’, where all its force was unleashed. One small reservation – the four very bright-sounding trumpets sometimes overpowered the rest of the band. Also, with so large and powerful an orchestra, the London Symphony Chorus, at just over 100 singers, simply was not strong enough, and balances suffered in the fortissimo sections. This was a pity since the choir’s singing was impeccable, stylish, internally balanced, the double chorus of the ‘Sanctus’ a masterpiece of precision.

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