Messa da Requiem
Violeta Urmana (soprano)
Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano)
Joseph Calleja (tenor)
Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (bass)
BBC Symphony Chorus
Crouch End Festival Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 31 August, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
With pieces as popular as Verdi’s “Requiem” expectations of a performance are often unrealistically high and can lead to disappointment. With this piece in particular, the need for a vocally well-matched and cohesive group of soloists is of great importance, and also that the chorus needs to be well rehearsed in order to bring out Verdi’s subtle writing. Then there is how the conductor decides to pitch the performance. Verdi’s “Requiem” is often described as being operatic – indeed this piece has even been subjected to staging, at English National Opera – and there must be a temptation to give the setting a full-blown operatic reading. Or one can treat it as a devout piece as has been managed effectively many times before. Getting the mix right is difficult, and steering a middle path runs the risk of leaving all hopes unsatisfied.
Jiří Bĕlohlávek’s interpretation seemed to try and avoid operatic excess and veered more towards the devotional. The sounds he favoured from the orchestra were full of dynamic nuance and the overall sound was generally lean – intentionally so I think. This meant that many orchestral details emerged afresh – notably the flute / clarinet interplay in the ‘Offertorio’ which was exquisite. Indeed the flute-playing throughout was marvellous. The off-stage brass was remarkably well integrated and co-ordinated and the fanfare effect in the run-up to and during the ‘Tuba mirum’ was tremendously exciting. Bĕlohlávek’s tempos were also on the fleet side and often urgent at moments where the text indicates that mood.
The combined choruses were in good voice, the singers’ response never over-lusty or gusty. The many pianissimo sections came over well, and they relished the more dramatic moments too, although the ‘Sanctus’ lacked that final sense of exhilaration it can sometimes engender.
The soloists were a fine quartet, although not perfectly matched. Best were Violeta Urmana and Joseph Calleja. The soprano part suits Urmana to a tee. The middle of her voice remains as rich and warm as it was (memories of her marvellous performances when she sang mezzo roles) – and she possesses the ability to pitch and float those soprano high notes with unerring accuracy and delicacy. This was the first time I have been convinced that her move ‘upwards’ was advised. The ‘Libera me’ found her at her most impressively intense, but her contribution to the ‘Offertorio’ was also remarkable.
Calleja impressed with his ringing tenor and the finesse with which he sang some of the trickier moments – his lightening of tone and his diminuendo at ‘Qui Mariam absolvisti’ was magical and the ‘Hostias’ hardly less so. He has an interesting individuality of tone, provided by what seems to be a very fast vibrato, which is very appealing.
Michelle DeYoung was standing in for Olga Borodina. As always she was a strong presence and totally committed, but she perhaps lacks the Italianate punch and resonance in the middle voice to be completely effective in the part. She blended well with Urmana in the ‘Agnus Dei’, but for some reason the ‘Lacrymosa’ did not pull at the heartstrings – and what a great theme it is! One is more used to hearing her in German and French repertoire, and so it was good to hear her in different repertoire.
Against these three the bass of Ildebrando D’Arcangelo sounded rather lightweight – though it was a refreshing change to hear and see a younger performer in the part. This is not to say his performance was lacking in interest or definition as it was both coloured and subtle, but he did not impose as much as needed.
That being said the performance was an original and cohesive interpretation, that managed to steer a sort of middle-way and successfully so.