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Marina Poplavskaya [Photo courtesy of Zemsky Green Artist Management]
26 Jul 2011

Verdi’s Requiem, BBC Proms

Not only did Verdi’s Requiem make its debut, rather remarkably, in the church of San Marco in Milan but the performance was as a liturgical one; Verdi’s intentions were quite firmly to provide a memorial mass for the Italian patriot, Manzoni.

Giuseppe Verdi: Requiem

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.

Above: Marina Poplavskaya [Photo courtesy of Zemsky Green Artist Management]


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 Opéra-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 words.

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

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