thu 17/10/2019

Prom 23: Verdi's Requiem, BBCSSO, Runnicles | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 23: Verdi's Requiem, BBCSSO, Runnicles

Prom 23: Verdi's Requiem, BBCSSO, Runnicles

A masterpiece of sacred intensity and secular drama

Donald Runnicles: absolute control, perhaps at times a little too much© Chris Christodoulou/BBC

A weekend of extremes at the Proms took us from stark solo Bach on Saturday to the massed forces of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, gathered under Donald Runnicles for Verdi’s Requiem. As a showcase for the kinds of repertoire the awkward Royal Albert Hall really does do well, it was pretty nigh perfect.

It’s always good (and far too rare) to see Donald Runnicles in London. The chief conductor of the BBCSSO announced his arrival by immediately wrong-footing his audience. Refusing to fulfil the promise and expectation of his massed musical forces, Runnicles launched the "Introit" with the most hushed of orchestral whispers. Only his moving baton confirmed that we really had started, forcing us to lean into the music with precisely the same attention Ibragimova had demanded the night before.

Where Cargill is pure vocal muscle, Meade’s voice is all gilded evanescence and glow

Playing a long game, Runnicles kept his musicians completely restrained throughout this first movement, holding them back for a payoff of a "Dies Irae", exploding into the space with a battering assault of sound. It was here that the chorus of the Deutsche Oper really claimed this musical territory as their own, showing up the weakness of even the best symphony choruses with their muscular and agile sound and superb blend.

They gave Runnicles everything he asked for, by turns desperately quiet and uncertain for the truncated opening pleas (“Requiem”), then matching the soloists for heft and projection in the "Sanctus" and "Dies Irae". Only the whispered consonants from the male chorus, so effective at their first appearance, felt overdone by the end – more mannered with each repetition.

The BBCSSO too showed their mettle, strings providing Runnicles with a web-like base to his orchestral sound, supporting the bright interjections of brass and the softer shades of the woodwind. Inevitably the brass stole the spotlight, trombones proving they are to Hell what trumpets are to Heaven in the "Dies Irae", and the whole section radiating glory in the "Sanctus". Only the "Libera Me" saw them falter, failing to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by soprano Angela Meade in her radiant solo and entering with rather more than the soft glow the music implies. Also notable was a wonderfully characterful bassoon solo for the “Quid sum miser” – truly the wheedling, whining voice of every wretched sinner.

Dominating the solo quartet were Meade and mezzo Karen Cargill. Where Cargill is pure vocal muscle, Meade’s voice is all gilded evanescence and glow. The pairing was astonishing, each luxuriating in Verdi’s duet writing without ever forcing the sound; the “Recordare” alone was enough to resign one to death. Separately, too, they shone – Meade in the closing “Lux perpetua”, floated so tenderly, and Cargill in the hushed intensity of her "Lux aeterna" opening.

The men had a less successful night, especially tenor Yosep Kang. Apparently suffering vocally, he fought his way through the evening, leaving the "Ingemisco" full of cracks and charging the "Hostias" with tension rather than effortless loveliness. Brightly Italianate and with a nice legato, however, his is a voice I’d be keen to hear more from. Raymond Aceto delivered solidly enough in the bass soloist’s supporting role, though words were often lost in the caves of his vowels.

What a joy to see a conductor showcasing two of his own ensembles in such a fine performance, working so instinctively and respectfully with them to conjure something far too electric for a Sunday night. Let’s hope it’s not another year before we see Runnicles and the BBCSSO back in town outside the confines of the Proms season.

Read theartsdesk's reviews of other concerts from the BBC Proms

The chorus gave Runnicles everything he asked for, by turns desperately quiet, then matching the soloists for heft

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Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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