Although Dvořák’s Requiem is not so frequently performed today, for a period after it premiered in 1890 it was as popular as Verdi’s as it enjoyed many performances in England, the Czech lands and America. The composer was commissioned to write it for the Birmingham Festival after his popularity in England had soared, owing largely to the fact that his writing worked so well for the amateur choral societies that had sprung up all over Victorian England. In this respect, this performance of the work offered the best of both worlds by being performed by an amateur choir (the BBC Symphony Chorus), but one of the very best to be found. As a result, the spirit of those very first performances was observed even as the evening boasted excellent musical credentials, especially since the chorus, under its master Gavin Carr, performed at the height of its game.
It may not be hard to perform Dvořák’s Requiem to a reasonable standard, but it is deceptively difficult to deliver it to a high one because so much of the work’s interest lies in its details. In this respect, Jiří Bělohlávek’s conducting of the BBC Symphony Orchestra was nigh on perfect as he delineated the various textures, while also ensuring excellent balance across all of the components that contributed to any particular section. It is often asserted that while Verdi placed a strong emphasis on theatricals in his Requiem, Dvořák, who unlike Verdi possessed immense personal religious conviction, created a relatively inward-looking piece that was concerned more with the needs of the departed souls and those they had left behind. This performance, however, really emphasised how even the most tender moments still possessed a certain drive in the sense that they never languished on the spot. At the same time, the most overwhelming passages still revealed more reflective elements by virtue of the attention to detail with which they were rendered.
The Requiem frequently involves a small number of instruments, and the way in which the ‘lead’ could pass in an instant from, for example, a small group of violins to solo wind was managed so that we felt the overall sense of fluidity, while still appreciating the alterations in texture and intention. The attention to detail was also demonstrated in ‘Confutatis maledictis’ when the strings captured perfectly the need to make their opening rising phrases particularly powerful, before toning the subsequent ones down so that as the chorus came in the performance was not so overwhelming as to be incoherent. Soloists and chorus also managed ‘Quid sum miser’ well as the latter frequently repeated the penultimate line that the former had uttered.
The soloists were strong with soprono Kateřina Kněžíková revealing some sublime tones, and mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers (replacing the advertised Jennifer Johnston) revealing her brilliance in this repertoire. Tenor Richard Samek made up for in focus what he lacked a little in projection (he may have been thinking about the live broadcast of the performance) while James Platt’s bass combined considerable strength with a certain degree of warmth.
This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and will be available on BBC Radio 3 iPlayer for thirty days.