Verdi Requiem/Muti

Messa da Requiem

Tatiana Serjan (soprano)
Olga Borodina (mezzo-soprano)
Giuseppe Sabbatini (tenor)
Petri Lindroos (bass)

Philharmonia Chorus
Philharmonia Voices

Philharmonia Orchestra
Riccardo Muti

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 14 March, 2007
Venue: Westminster Cathedral, London

You want a sense of occasion for a 50th-birthday, and the Philharmonia Chorus celebrated with plenty of that sense at Westminster Cathedral. Dedicated to the memory of Arturo Toscanini, who died 50 years ago this year, the single work was Verdi’s “Messa da Requiem”, and marked the Philharmonia Orchestra’s former Principal Conductor Riccardo Muti’s return to working with the Chorus for the first time in over ten years (he had celebrated the Orchestra’s 40th-anniversary with a performance of one of his beloved Cherubini sacred works).

Verdi’s “Requiem” holds a special place in the history of the Philharmonia Chorus, not least the famous EMI recording under Carlo Maria Giulini. Muti himself made his first recording of the work with Philharmonia Orchestra in 1979 (also EMI), with the professional Ambrosian Chorus. So this was a potentially cherishable occasion and did not disappoint. Here the Chorus was joined by its sister-ensemble, the professional Philharmonia Voices.

Given Prince Charles’s presence, security was tight, but undertaken with the minimum of inconvenience. Not surprisingly the performance started late. Eventually the soloists and Muti joined the assembled Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus before the Sanctuary at the end of the Nave and, as the audience finally settled, out of the depths the “Requiem” began. From where I was sitting, eleven rows from the orchestra, the orchestral sound was slightly distant, the cavernous darkened domes above seeping away some of the immediacy of the sound. Curiously – when both soloists and chorus were singing – it was the orchestral sound that seemed to suffer, perhaps because all voices were directed frontward, whereas most of the orchestra – or at least the strings – play upwards.

The chorus, unusually, was presented with their respective pitches in horizontal bands – sopranos at the front, basses, high up on the last two rows – rather than in groups (sopranos to the left, basses to the right), and I wondered if Muti had decided on this for clarity’s sake. If so it was largely successful, and the Chorus acquitted itself in the finest of styles, with firm attack and unanimity not only in entries but also in standing and sitting. With the altar lit behind the choral singers, there could have been no better position for them and their singing, carefully moulded by Muti’s expressive gestures, and true to both work and occasion.

Muti had chosen well-matched soloists too, although only one, tenor Giuseppe Sabbatini was echt-Italian. The others were Russian and Finnish, Olga Borodina well known for her luscious and creamy tone. St Petersburg-born Tatiana Serjan, something of a Muti regular (singing both Italian repertoire and Hindemith’s “Sancta Susanna”), joined her. This could even have been Serjan’s UK debut. Next to Borodina, Serjan seemed more nervous and reticent. In the final, half-muttered ‘Libera me’, Muti was obviously wishing for more from her, but she was the more emotional of the two female soloists.

As an ensemble the soloists melded well (the heartfelt ‘Offertorium’ and ‘Lux aeterna’ for mezzo, tenor and bass and I liked both Sabbatini’s seemingly effortless contribution as much as Petri Lindroos’s sonorous bass.

While perhaps most impressive were the subtleties that Muti was able to achieve in such a resonant acoustic, the climaxes also had a spine-tingling power. With antiphonal trumpets, and – for good measure – a third placed high behind Muti on his right, the trumpets sounding in the ‘Dies irae’ had a thrilling theatrical touch, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a larger bass drum, its off-beat contributions having real presence.

All in all, this was an utterly splendid evening. The Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra are back at Westminster Cathedral with Sir Andrew Davis for an equally appropriate work, Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius” (24 May), while Riccardo Muti celebrates his 35th-anniversary with the Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall on 2 December.

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