The Whole Megillah

July 11, 2013 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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A well stocked orchestra plus two choirs and four vocal soloists hardly left room for conductor, David Robertson, to thread his way to the podium to launch Verdi’s Requiem…writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

I’d only ever heard recordings of the work and I expected something of a pleasant enough endurance test, but how wrong I was. Ahead of me was an enthralling live musical experience.

David Robertson

David Robertson

When you combine arguably the greatest operatic composer with a mass for the dead you get a multi hued and sometimes triumphant send-off to God. This is the composer who startled the world with Aida and although the Requiem doesn’t feature animals, soldiers, slaves or dancers it is operatic rather than ecclesiastical in character.

Verdi had wanted to honour Rossini, who died in 1868, with a collaboration between contemporary Italian composers to produce a requiem. Thirteen of them obliged but “Messa per Rossini” missed its scheduled premier and the organising committee promptly threw in the towel. The blame game singled out the conductor’s disinterest as the reason and Verdi had a falling out with him. For the record, the work wasn’t premiered until 1988 and then in Stuttgart.

That left Verdi with an unborn requiem running around in his head. When a much loved poet, Alessandro Manzoni, died in 1873, it reignited Verdi’s desire to write a requiem and he got to work. It was first performed in Milan in 1874 with Verdi himself conducting. Although very well received, the requiem went into hibernation after a few performances. Verdi did something similar by taking a 13-year sabbatical before returning to write Othello at the age of 79.

Also in returning musical mode was SSO conductor David Robertson for another toe-in-the-water run with the orchestra before he takes over as chief conductor and artistic director from Vladimir Ashkenazy next year. The performance of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem tested his credentials as few other works could. The classical music lovers of Sydney appear to be in good hands.

Although the requiem runs for more than 80 minutes without a break, it is it is over all too soon. At no point does it drag or become melancholy, despite it being about death and its presumed aftermath.

The score calls for substantial forces. On this occasion they comprised the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, TSO Chorus (all the way from Tasmania), and the SSO beefed up with extra brass and percussion. The four vocal soloists were Erin Wall soprano, Olesya Petrova mezzo, John Daszak tenor and Ain Anger bass. The solo voices were operatic rather than oratorio in style and that helped push whole work into a more embraceable realm.

Likewise, the orchestration won attention with all-in climaxes, haunting ethereal solos and passages of melting sadness.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

I loved the opening of this work. The choir, already standing, and the cellos began a barely-there dialogue, which had the listener leaning forward to catch it. The solo voices then entered with the Kyrie, and a deep river of sound flowed.

If the opening section was contemplative then the second (Dies irae) was a huge, uplifting barrage, exciting in the extreme.

Subsequent sections were disarming in their variety as they employed various combinations of soloists, choir and orchestral colour. Again drawing on his operatic background, Verdi makes repeated use of all the voices and instruments at his disposal. Nobody goes home wondering.

Sometimes soloists who have to be heard above an orchestra and choir can be drowned out, but not in this case. We were treated to four excellent voices and, it should be said, an admirable sense of balance by David Robertson.

I admit to liking big choirs but I loved this one. With a total compliment of 200 choristers it was able to sing softly in a way that reached your backbone. And, of course, when fortissimo was called for it was capable of scouring the opera house ceiling.

I came away mostly remembering the beginning and the end of the piece. While the beginning came slowly up from silence, the end had me in two minds. I wanted it to finish on a tear-worthy fading high note from the soprano (whose upper register reminded me of warm butterscotch) and maybe Giuseppe was tempted too, but instead he continued to a more conventional, stirring conclusion. To his credit, Robertson held the final C major chord until silence swallowed it, so that the piece at least ended reverently

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