Semyon Bychkov’s 2011 interpretation of Verdi’s Requiem for the Proms set a high standard in terms of subtlety of performance, and Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra made a strong bid, last night, to beat Bychkov’s record for the quietest opening of the piece – whose start was barely discernible over the audience’s preparatory coughing. The magnificently hushed first chorus entry from the Concert Association of the Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin also promised great things – it is in the opening Kyrie rather than the bombast of the other movements that we can hear the true worth of the chorus.
Runnicles and his forces gave us exciting moments during the piece – there were some adroitly executed changes in tempo and dynamic, allowing brief prominence to particular phrases – but it subsequently proved to be a curate’s egg of an evening. It felt as though some sections (for example the Libera me, Domine fugue in the last movement or the terrifyingly whispered last notes of the same movement) had been given a great deal of detailed rehearsal, whereas others (such as the chorus parts in the Agnus Dei, where the diction disappeared and the words were practically inaudible) had received scant attention. There were many moments of bliss – including the flute trio in the Agnus Dei, the delicately handled Hostias, and the perfectly balanced solo work in the Lux æterna – but other moments fell short of the mark: the Tuba mirum felt less cataclysmic than it should, and the incandescence of the final choral entry for salva me, fons pietatis was somehow missing.
Last night’s performance also demonstrated what happens when a chorus fails to undertake the seemingly tedious business of rehearsing sits and stands; not only did the sight of the chorus scrambling to its feet, while simultaneously trying to sing, look unprofessional (especially for an opera chorus who should know the value of being in the correct position from which to sing), but it affected the attack and the quality of the sound, and this happened twice, in the entries of the Rex tremendæ and the third appearance of the Dies iræ passage
The soloists provide the listener with the grand operatic melodies, and carry the lion’s share of the work. Last night’s soloists proved a mixed blessing; they blended well in ensemble, but in the solo passages the difference in quality showed. The mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill undoubtedly stole the show; her perfectly creamy voice made all of her solo moments – especially the opening of the Lux æterna – magical experiences. The soprano Angela Meade also impressed – her first entry in the Kyrie suggested perhaps just a little too much vibrato, but her voice proved to be measured and versatile, with a brilliantly demonstrated ability to tackle the opposites of terror and sweetness in the Libera me, and to make the perfect partnership with Karen Cargill’s voice in the Recordare and Agnus Dei. The male soloists, however, were less remarkable. Raymond Aceto performed his bass solos with great verve and energy, but his tone – which has more baritone resonance than bass – lacked the profundity needed for the part. The tenor, Yosep Kang, seemed nervous; his voice had just the right timbre for a large Italian work, but somehow lacked power – the Hostias was artfully floated, but the tread and ‘turbo-charge’ of statuens in parte dextra were missing.