BBC Proms reviews

BBC Proms: Verdi’s Requiem features on the first night at the Royal Albert Hall

15 July 2022

Back to normal as an open house greets the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo.

BBC Proms

Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, Jennifer Johnston, Sakari Oramo, David Junghoon Kim & Kihwan Sim (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

The first full Proms’ season since 2019 opened with a choral blockbuster, Verdi’s Requiem. Given that programming constraints over the last two years didn’t allow for choral works on this scale, choosing to open the season with Verdi’s thrilling setting of the requiem mass signalled that the Proms were back with a vengeance. And in a week where the country’s Covid mortality rate passed the grim milestone of 200,000 deaths and daily infection rates hit a new high of 350,000, to open the season with a mass for the dead seemed entirely appropriate, and a fitting tribute to those who have lost their lives. The fact that tenor Freddie de Tomasso had to withdraw at late notice due to catching Covid is a reminder that this disease is very much still with us – we wish him a speedy recovery.

Overall, this was a fine performance of the most operatic setting of the mass, but there were several bumps along the way. The evocative, hushed entry of the choir at the start of the Introit certainly created the right solemn atmosphere, although it was a shame tenor David Junghoon Kim’s dramatic entrance in the Kyrie veered slightly sharp. Conductor Sakari Oramo set a very steady tempo for this first section, and it wasn’t the only time it felt as though his foot was hovering too much over the brake pedal.

There were no reservations in the opening chorus of the Dies Irae section – the sense of hellfire and damnation was palpable – while the spatial trumpet effects Verdi calls for were expertly realised from on high. Bass Kihwan Sim was impressive, but more gravitas and sepulchral low notes wouldn’t have gone amiss in ‘Mors stupebit et natura’. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston was fearless in ‘Judex ergo cum sedebit’ her voice ringing out thrillingly, ably accompanied by some sonorous brass playing. This section suffered from being quite sluggish, as did the ensuing ‘Quid sum miser tunc dicturus’, and there was a sense of the soloists trying to nudge the conductor on.

“…the Proms were back with a vengeance”

BBC Proms

Sakari Oramo (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Johnston was equally effective in the Recordare, her voice blending superbly with soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha. Indeed this young South African soprano who won the Song Prize at last year’s Cardiff Singer of the World competition was the revelation of the evening. Her voice is even throughout the range, and is not only capable of spinning the most beguiling phrases, but can float the most exquisite top notes as well.

In the Offertory, Johnston and Kim’s voices complemented each other’s nicely, but all four soloists seemed to be thrown by Oramo’s stately pace for the ‘Quam olim Abrahae section’, which needs more forward propulsion that the conductor was prepared to allow. The choir excelled in a perfectly judged ‘Sanctus’ – all the pianissimo fugal entries were clear, and sung with pinpoint accuracy – while the trombones rightly had a field day at the end.

Rangwanasha and Johnston were sublime in the unaccompanied opening to the Agnus Dei, with the choir providing the perfect cushion of sound in the background later on in the section. The Libera Me was launched by Rangwanasha fearlessly. She possessed the vocal heft to ride the tumult of the choir and orchestra, yet was equally mesmerising in the quieter passages, most notably in an exquisitely voiced ‘Requiem aeternam’, replete with a gloriously floated pianissimo at its close.

Although some of Oramo’s speeds at times seemed wayward, it has to be said he secured electrifying playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, while the choral singing was without fault. Despite some reservations, Verdi’s monumental Requiem still cast its spell and managed to move, and thrill in equal measure. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting start to the season.

• Full details of the BBC Proms season 2022 can be found here.

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