Verdi: Requiem

Christine Brewer; Karen Cargill; Stuart Neill; John Relyea; LSO/Sir Colin Davis

Barbican Hall, London, 17 January 2009 4 stars

Christine Brewer

During this performance of Verdi's Requiem at the Barbican Hall, the last lines of a poem by John Donne came powerfully into my mind.

Verdi, an atheist (or an anticlericalist, others would say), composed the Requiem for novelist Alessandro Manzoni's death an event that had touched him deeply.

On the other hand, far in time and space, in the poem 'Batter My Hearth', John Donne, a religious man, intimates the Lord to be ferocious to him in order that he can be saved: 'Divorce me, untie or break that knot again, / Take me to you, imprison me, for I, / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.'

The same violent anguish lights up both the Requiem and Donne's sonnet. And just as with this latter's narrative voice, yesterday the audience was summoned to wrestle with Sir Colin Davis's Requiem.

Despite the Requiem's aggression, delicate moments were excellently delivered. The hundred-strong choir whispered their first moving 'Requiem aeternam' as if they were breathless before having even started the performance. The orchestra restlessly wove minor key themes below. Moments like these are ones of painful stasis: there are always sound references pushing the listener out of a 'safety zone', out of placid resignation. These scenarios of anxious serenity, that return all through the work, burst out without notice. This is why the 'Dies Irae', the fortissimo episodes and the moments of hysteric virtuosity turn out to be so violent. I was impressed, though, by the smooth gracefulness of the strings' performance, even in the hastier sequences. They blended perfectly with the choir instead of opposing it, as can easily happen.

Verdi's Requiem is situated within the shifting faults of an oscillation: calm moments, like a resigned bowing of the head, versus shattering cataclysms. Davis's interpretation made the most of these extremes. 'Enough!', one prayed at times during the most brutal moments. But not even during the solo sections a truce was declared. Soprano Christine Brewer was stern in her delivery; together with the bass John Relyea, they embodied the darkest sides of the performance. They were impeccable in their dense execution; their singing, though, was all but conciliatory. In contrast, the warm tone of mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill challenged the outer voices' despair. Cargill seemed to be taking the orchestra and the choir by the hand when she proclaimed 'Nil inultum remanebit' ('Nothing shall remain unavenged'): everyone got quieter as she started murmuring, only to rise again at her summons. Impressive also was the blending of the soprano and mezzo voices, especially considering that Cargill stepped at the last minute due to the indisposition of Larissa Diadkova. The two female voices relied on one another. If the soprano was austere when singing solo, each time the mezzo joined her the two were transformed into a single vocal body on stage.

On the other hand, the male voices, both prominent, provided two more solitary and self-centered pivots. The bass John Relyea did a great job of expressing the depths of desperation; his 'Mors, mors, mors' 'Death, death, death' seemed to come straight from Hades. Yet renowned Verdian tenor Stuart Neill surmounted him in fierceness. He was the only one singing by heart. And he certainly wasn't reticent in emphasising his ability to master the piece, especially in his solos (the 'Ingemisco' above all), which he turned into real operatic interludes. However, it was in the most subdued moments that he gave his best: his 'Hostias' was a ceremony of modesty and acceptance, as he sang in an almost counter-tenor-like register.

All Requiem masses bear an intrinsic burden of mourning and unutterable tragedy. Through the unfolding of music, the inexpressibility of pain finds a form an aural shape and catharsis takes place. Verdi's Requiem can be read as a catharsis that never happened. By the end of the piece, one feels drained and finds it hard to cope with such an obstinate musical resolution: the oscillations between serene yet restless moments and violent quakes could have just as easily continued. The audience, again, is summoned to wrestle with the piece in order not to be overwhelmed.

Leaving the Barbican Hall, I had the feeling I had attended a perfect although not flawless performance of Verdi's Requiem. Now that I try to recollect and articulate my thoughts about this Requiem, I realise that perhaps such an ideal performance never existed. And yet, there was something in Davis's interpretation that made this precise rendition the only possible way to let the Requiem's non-catharsis resound. Until the next best performance.

By Marina Romani

Read recent concert reviews, including the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, here.