Messa da Requiem
Marina Poplavskaya (soprano), Mariana Pentcheva (mezzo-soprano), Joseph Calleja (tenor) & Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC National Chorus of Wales
London Philharmonic Choir
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 24 July, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Of the four most-performed musical Requiem masses – those by Mozart, Verdi, Fauré and Britten – Verdi’s covers the extremes of dread, human supplication and cosmic judgment. There is a much more fluid relationship between man and his maker (and his destroyer) than in Britten’s rather specific layering of the all-too-human and the divine; and, for all its length and great forces, Verdi’s is much more liturgically bracing than Fauré’s infinitely more user-friendly, consolatory setting.
Verdi really understood the importance of theatre in the Requiem liturgy. Semyon Bychkov, in this generally magnificent performance, added a mythic quality that went way beyond the specifics of faith and which somehow called into question our modern obsession with death-denying individuality.
The four soloists were superb and managed with consummate ease the way Verdi flirts with characterisation. Never have the middle sections of the ‘Dies irae’ sounded so much like plea-bargaining with the Almighty, and the end of the ‘Lachrymosa’ caught that closing of the door on temporal existence with chilling inevitability. One of the early signifiers that suggests we might be on course for a truly great performance is the tenor’s opening shot in the ‘Kyrie’, and Joseph Calleja achieved this with effortless ease and authority, and went on to sing an ‘Ingemisco’ of surging lyricism. Ferruccio Furlanetto invested ‘Mors stupebit’ with an almost existential bleakness and was, to great effect, not shy with some very Italianate operatic sobs.At first Mariana Pentcheva could have used a bit more breadth and warmth, and her far-reaching vibrato was a force to be reckoned with. She had settled, though, by the time we got to a fine-grained ‘Agnus Dei’ (which, tempo-wise, did not hang about) of a quality and directness that complemented Marina Poplavskaya’s secure and eloquent soprano. Pentcheva’s consistent, rather impassive style enhanced Poplavskaya’s more histrionic delivery, which included her masterly placing of the pianissimo top B flat in the ‘Libera me’. Her barely audible, muttered final phrase, a prayer that isn’t exactly holding its breath as far as light at the end of death’s dark tunnel is concerned, rather summed up Bychkov’s terror-struck vision of the work.
His generally kept-moving tempos suited the three choirs, which sang with an attention to words and their meaning with astonishing clarity and attack. The Royal Albert Hall was just about big enough to contain them, as well as the thunderous, in-the-round splendour of the brass in the ‘Tuba mirum’, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra played with stirring freshness and urgency. Over the years the Proms and Verdi’s Requiem have done very well by each other, and this remarkable performance had an emotional and spiritual scope to speak to everyone, from defiant atheist to cringing penitent.