Verdi’s Requiem, BBC Proms

But following this sacred premiere, the work went on
to have 3 further performances at La Scala and Verdi then took it on tour round
theatrical venues in Europe. So from the word go, the piece has been poised
between the sacred and the secular. It is this which gives the piece some of
its fascination and difficulty. Verdi’s writing mixes operatic elements with
some which are more sacred. For soloists he calls for 4 experienced Verdians,
but then he writes unaccompanied ensemble passages for them which are some way
from what he would have written in an opera.

At the BBC Proms on Sunday 24th July, Semyon Bychkov conducted BBC forces in
a very large scale performance. There were 3 choirs (BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC
National Chorus of Wales and the London Philharmonic Choir) with the BBC
Symphony Orchestra and a quartet of soloists all with strong Verdian
credentials (Marina Poplavskaya, Mariana Pentcheva, Joseph Calleja and Ferrucio
Furlanetto). The three choirs numbered around 450 singers and the orchestra was
similarly large scale, complete with a cimbasso on the brass bass line (instead
of the modern tuba or euphonium)

This issue of size is an interesting one, which can also be traced back to
Verdi’s original performances. Though the 1874 performances at La Scala used
a choir of 120, when Verdi took the work on tour round Europe his attitude
seems to have been flexible. So that whilst he performed the piece in Paris at
the OpÈra-Comique (not a large theatre), in London it was performed at the
Royal Albert Hall in 1875 with huge forces. Clearly Verdi was not dogmatic
about the forces involved, so we should not be either. Instead we can sit back
and revel in the sheer sound that Bychkov conjured from his Proms forces.

The opening demonstrated what a wonderful sound can be created by a
disciplined large choir singing in hushed tones. Though big in scale, this
wasn’t a driven or a bombastic performance, Bychkov drew some beautifully
quiet and detailed singing from his choristers. The difficulty of combining 450
singers in such a space should not be underestimated and it is to the three
choirs’ credit that their choristers combined in such a powerful and
disciplined fashion.

All was not quiet, of course. Come the ‘Dies Irae’ then all hell was let
loose in appropriate fashion. Here we were able to take stock of Bychkov’s
flexible tempi. He did not drive the piece forward manically, but let
it expand at a rate suitable for the Albert Hall’s problematic acoustic. The
‘Dies Irae’ was not the fastest performance that I have experienced, but
even when letting the music breathe Bychkov kept up the power and momentum in
an impressive fashion.

The chorus’s big solo moment, of course, comes in the ‘Sanctus’ where
they perform without the soloists. Here we got some beautifully detailed
singing, and fine dancing tone.

The soloists were an interesting bunch, each with a distinctive and
particular voice. Mezzo-soprano Pentcheva was a last-minute replacement for
Sonia Ganassi. Pentcheva has proven Verdi credentials; her voice combines a
distinctive dark hued lower register with a flexible upper, capable of some
lovely quiet singing. She has a strong vibrato which might not be to
everyone’s taste. She proved tasteful and flexible in her singing and brought
some great beauty to her quiet moments, along with vivid projection of

Calleja sang the tenor part with full tone and a fine sense of line; he
brought a fine sense of quiet rapture to the ‘Hostias’. Perhaps he missed
the more bravura elements of the part, but he was a fine ensemble singer
contributing intelligently to the many concerted solo moments. Ferrucio
Furlanetto brought a world-weary grandeur to the bass part; lacking the
ultimate in power, he showed commitment and discipline along with a fine sense
of line.

Finally, of course, we come to the soprano; whilst all the soloists have
their moments, Verdi’s use of the soprano in the final ‘Libera me’
ensures that it is the soprano who we remember best. Poplavskaya brought her
familiar plangent tones and beautifully expressive line to the role, singing
with a commitment which suggested she was living the part rather than just
singing a soprano solo. She floated some supremely lovely lines during the
piece, but these were always intelligently placed and not just vocalism for its
own sake. In the ‘Libera me’ she took the drama to the point where she was
in danger of becoming manner, but the ‘Requiem’ section where she sang just
accompanied by the unaccompanied choir was simply beautiful. Though I must
admit to having a slight reservation, Poplavskaya’s quiet plangency
threatened to push the notes below pitch, but this was a small point in what
was a very fine performance.

The soloists are more than just 4 individuals, Verdi asks them to sing in
ensemble rather a lot and to do so unaccompanied. Poplavskaya, Pentcheva,
Calleja and Furlanetto patently listened to each other and though their voices
were very different, created a real ensemble. Most people who have heard the
Requiem quite a few times have stories about the intonation problems
in these ensemble passages. But not here. And in the ‘Agnus Dei
‘Poplavskaya and Pentcheva sang in octaves in a way which, whilst not quite
of one voice, came pretty close.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra provided sterling support and some brilliant
playing. Granted their string tone does not approach the vibrancy of the best
bands in this music, but they brought commitment, intelligence and delicacy.

Bychkov controlled all in a way which allowed the detail of the work to be
felt without compromising the big moments. This was certainly a performance of
contrasts. Inevitably some detail gets lost in the Albert Hall, but Bychkov
brought out much that was finely wrought, then contrasted it with some
spectacularly loud moments. The ‘Dies Irae’ and the ‘Tuba Mirum’ are
not the be all and end all of a performance of Verdi’s Requiem; here
these big moments were big indeed but contrasted with some moments of nicely
quiet intensity.

Robert Hugill

image_description=Marina Poplavskaya [Photo courtesy of Zemsky Green Artist Management]
product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Requiem
product_by=Marina Poplavskaya, soprano; Mariana Pentcheva, mezzo-soprano; Joseph Calleja, tenor; Ferruccio Furlanetto, bass. BBC Symphony Chorus. BBC National Chorus of Wales. London Philharmonic Choir. BBC Symphony Orchestra. Semyon Bychkov, conductor.
product_id=Above: Marina Poplavskaya [Photo courtesy of Zemsky Green Artist Management]