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Verdi’s Requiem

by Suzanne Yanko

Composers may write a requiem in memory of a loved one – or, as in the case of Mozart – as a commissioned work. Whatever the inspiration, the best known of these memorials to the dead are powerful pieces of music, thanks to their words and the emotional content that infuses them. Guiseppe Verdi is, of course, known for his operas – and his requiem vies with Mozart’s for its huge dramatic power. The recurrence of the chorus, Dies irae, is not surprising if the words are considered: ‘The day of wrath, that day/ shall dissolve the world in ashes … What trembling shall there be/ when the Judge shall come’. This is the very stuff of opera, as are the pleas for mercy, the fear and the hope of redeeming love. All are reflected in Verdi’s Requiem, and the composer uses an operatic structure familiar to him – with soloists and chorus, and even a sense of ‘scenes’ that take the listener through an engrossing story. The Dies irae is worthy of comparison with Verdi’s best-known operatic choruses – and is arguably one of the most difficult to sing. For a start, there needs to be a sheer mass of sound – and on this occasion, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra invited Sydney Philharmonia Choirs to join its Chorus. The more than 200 singers were well able to be heard above the full orchestra, even with percussion and brass amplifying the sound. The antiphonal effect was enhanced in the opening section by having trumpets positioned in the upper circle of the audience. Thrilling stuff. As for the choir, it wasn’t just a matter of volume – there were fiendish entries, syncopation, dynamic contrasts and triplets to be sung in unison, as well as long notes, especially for the sopranos. And that was just the Dies irae! The choir, well prepared by Jonathan Grieves-Smith in Melbourne and Brett Weymark in Sydney, also knew the impact of contrast as it supported the soloists, often ‘rounding off’ sections in way that gently amplified the sound without changing the mood.  This was well managed in the Agnus dei after the spare duet between soprano Amber Wagner and Jamie Barton, mezzo-soprano. After minimal accompaniment for the soloists, the orchestra mirrored the choir to bring the section to an almost hushed conclusion. Of the four fine soloists (also including Rene Barbera, tenor, and bass Jonathan Lemalu) Barton was outstanding for the warmth of her upper register as well as the mezzo range, with Lacrimosa notable for the beauty of her introduction. Like much of the Requiem this developed into a piece for soloists and chorus (and orchestra), a reminder that the composer has written many beautiful works in just such a format. In fact, the performance must be seen as an entirely successful ensemble piece, thanks to all concerned: soloists, chorus, orchestra – and conductor Sir Andrew Davis. The long silence before the applause was testament to his keeping the massive work together, without ever exaggerating the sound or diminishing its power. The performers knew they’d done well, with singers and orchestra applauding each other, the soloists and Davis – and all of them enjoying a number of curtain calls and ‘bravos’ from a large audience. Verdi’s Requiem is heard all too rarely, because of the demands of staging it, and we were very fortunate to hear the best of performances. Rating: 5 stars out of 5   Verdi’s Requiem Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Sir Andrew Davis – conductor René Barbera – tenor Jonathan Lemalu – bass Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus Sydney Philharmonia Choirs Verdi – Messa da Requiem   Hamer Hall, Melbourne 6 September (Pictured: Conductor Sir Andrew Davis)

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