An expansive Verdi Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall.
When a performance of Verdi’s Requiem is billed as ‘London Mozart Players join over 300 singers’, it feels like a must-attend event, and certainly, on Wednesday evening at the Royal Festival Hall, the stage was full to bursting: the vast combined chorus of Lewisham Choral Society and Hackney Singers not only occupied the choir stalls, but spread into over three rows onstage.
Under Dan Ludford-Thomas’ baton, the London Mozart Players performed extremely well; it’s a piece doubtless more than familiar to them, but they approached it with a crispness and a sure understanding of its musical intent from the quietest pianissimo of the opening cello bars to some real solidity in the big choruses (with well co-ordinated offstage brass from the upper boxes in Tuba mirum), elegantly mannered woodwind passages (those quirky little bassoon interjections), well-controlled dynamic in the movements for soloists (the violin shimmer at the opening of Lux aeterna was absolutely radiant), some agile brass work (the trombone blitz at the close of Sanctus was as rumbustious as clearly Verdi intended), and a deal of enthusiastic percussion playing.
On the whole, the chorus gave a good and well-co-ordinated account, although there were ups and downs. The opening Introitus was precisely controlled for dynamic, and it’s a pleasure to hear so many voices singing that quietly; the sustained sections of fortissimo also worked well – so the recurring Dies irae passage was always well executed and at the volume it demands; the control of dynamic on the Amen of Lachrymosa was special, as was the co-ordination of the chanted section at the opening of Libera me. The contrapuntal passages (such as Sanctus and the Libera me fugue) though, sometimes seemed a little woolly, and one felt that a touch more heft and focus for each voice part for the entries throughout would have made for a crisper, cleaner sound. With such a large choir, you would expect that a single voice part entry would also make a solid sound, but there were one or two of these that didn’t quite hit the mark for impact: the bass entry on Rex tremendae, for example, or the opening alto fugue entry at the end of Libera me.
“…the stage was full to bursting…”
The forces were joined by soloists Philippa Boyle (soprano), Martha McLorinan (mezzo), Ben Thapa (tenor) and Thomas Humphreys (bass), and while they all brought some enjoyable moments to the party, the performances, alas, weren’t flawless.
In general, all of them blended well, and probably their most effective singing was in the duet, trio and quartet numbers – the Recordare duet, for example, was enchanting (particularly the ‘just touching the notes’ in ‘quaerens me’). Boyle has a gorgeous bell-like tone in her mid range, and when the notes above the stave were floated (as in the famous Libera me passage), they held the same delight; sadly, though, when everything became fast and loud her voice took on steelier and more spread tones which felt as though control of production was slipping. McLorinan’s opening numbers (particularly Liber scriptus) were opulently delivered: plenty of rich fruit in the lower register, and a harder, but focused edge at the top. The evening, though, took its toll, and towards the end, the edge had become somewhat reedy, and the chest voice a touch strained. Humphreys’ voice is beautifully rich with lower harmonics, and he served us a Confutatis full of enjoyable sonority; of the four, though, he was the least audible in places, and one wondered whether with an impressive track record singing Mozart and Vaughan Williams was quite the right preparation for the rigorous projection demands of Verdi. How much dramatic input should Verdi’s music have? Certainly, if it is an opera role, then a degree of ‘wobble and sob’ is almost mandatory, but it’s arguable that, while expression and simpatico with the style are necessary for the tenor soloist in the Requiem, the full-on milking needs to be dialled back a little. Thapa, though, brought Radamès to the stage, sometimes to the detriment of Verdi’s trajectory of line (the tread passage at ‘qui Mariam’ in Ingemisco for example seemed to lose its increase in intensity because of an emotional pause). He possesses a lovely dramatic tenor voice that, at times, was a joy to listen to (the beginning of Ingemisco and his entry in Hostias were floated as delicately as you could wish, and there was certainly plenty of controlled power there for the big moments), but the florid delivery, on several occasions detracted from the music itself.