Monday, 11 December 2017

Abbey's ancient walls resound to the tumultuous and ethereal

THERE can be few venues more suited to Verdi’s awesome Requiem than Dorchester Abbey.

A large well-disciplined choir, four ideally-matched soloists and an augmented orchestra filled this ancient building with a glorious variety of sound from the tumultuous roaring of the Dies irae (Wrath of God) to the ethereal beauty of the Libera me (Deliver me, O Lord).

What made this performance so outstanding was that Maestro Christopher Walker’s choices of tempi were exemplary throughout.

From the beginning he savoured every detail of each pianissimo phrase and the whole ensemble responded sensitively to every nuance.

He established an atmosphere of respect, peace and nobility as befits the funeral of a great man — in this case Verdi’s countryman Alessandro Manzini, to whose memory the work was dedicated.

In the religious context it is a source of puzzlement to yours truly that the peaceful opening “Grant them eternal rest, Lord” is shortly followed by the tumultuous Dies irae in which fire and brimstone rain down upon them — but musically the juxtaposition works very well. In the Dies irae, Maestro Walker stuck firmly to his chosen tempo. Consequently, the imposing antiphonic brass fanfare, Tuba mirum, arguably the most majestic and exciting crescendo in brass history, was absolutely spine-tingling.

The four vocal soloists, individually and in their trios and quartets, such as Offertorium and Lux Aeterna, provided many beautiful moments too numerous to describe here. Some high points were as follows.

Christopher Foster, bass, in his solo Mors stupebit (Death will be astounded) left us in no doubt that grim death was nigh. Also, his contribution to the trio Lux Aterna was gorgeously resonant and fruity.

Mark Chaundy, tenor, in his long, high-pitched and challenging aria Ingemisco tamquam (I moan as one accused) exercised superb breath control and evenness of tone. Susan Legg, mezzo-soprano, was on top form throughout and clearly enjoying it. Her clarity and sweetness of tone in her first number, Liber scriptus (A written book) was particularly telling.

Elizabeth Roberts, soprano, in the unnerving final aria Libera Me (Deliver me) sang with admirable simplicity and accuracy of pitch.

She, and the choir, should be congratulated on successfully navigating the unaccompanied key modulations that so often end up with the choir singing in one key and the soloist in another. Their intonation remained rock solid.

Thomas Oxley played the notoriously difficult bassoon solo in Quidsum miser (What such a wretch as I) with great liquidity and deceptive ease.

Also, notably, the cello section played the start of the Offertorium successfully in unison. Even in the most professional performances this tricky passage is sometimes left for the leader to perform as a solo.

And that leaves the choir — last but by no means least. Immaculate in dress and voice they sang consistently well and evenly, fully responsive to the conductor and very supportive of the soloists in their combined numbers.

Verdi’s Requiem would have been as nothing without their discipline and fine attention to detail.

John Burleigh

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