Classics at King's

Anna Campbell 26 January 2008

CUMS I Orchestra; Choirs of Gonville and Caius, Christ’s, Girton, St Catharine’s, Selwyn and Trinity Colleges (Conductor: Stephen Cleobury)

It seems appropriate that the deaths of two influential Italians, Rossini and Manzoni, should lie at the root of this work. Verdi’s writing is shot with a sense of personal and artistic grief – perhaps a substitute for his lack of religious fervour. For all its dramaticism, as might be expected from a composer known primarily for his operas, the Requiem is underpinned by a desperate yet quietly controlled tension. It is an apt decision to leave half of King’s Chapel in gloom. Cleobury’s conducting, which retains an air of stillness whilst accommodating the most terrifying of orchestral gestures, is very fitting.

This is a long work, and Verdi leaves no syllable of the text unreckoned with. The 150-strong choir use the chapel’s celebrated acoustic to great effect: the consonants are sharp, the dynamics sustained and the tone supported at every level. The natural resonance is used sparingly, at only the most poignant moments only. The bass reiteration “mors” (“death”) in the Dies Irae is one such example: its effect is one of utter void. On occasion, the solo soprano entries are so delicately executed as to resemble natural harmonics. The use of only half the chapel, whose ceiling is illuminated from below, creates not only a distorted sense of perspective but a tremendously focused amplification.

CUMS I Orchestra achieves a similar clarity. Part of the empty ‘terror’ resides in many a cruelly exposed passage for particular instruments. Just as Verdi rearranges the soloists into various ensembles, he plays equally with orchestral timbre. Quirkily unhinged bassoon lines, violins precariously suspended in their upper register and the monumental brass fanfares are all tackled bravely.

Percussion, clearly a vital element, is carefully placed and balanced. The music is rarely self-conscious, and its performance is accordingly bold. Yet there is a certain elegance to Verdi’s drama, which is subtly teased out: the final ‘amen’ of the epic Dies Irae almost has the quality of a new beginning. Perhaps one of the most impressive moments, both in terms of performance and composition, is the Sanctus double fugue. The choir, divided into two, negotiates its way through with a good degree of skill and conviction. The counterpoint is tightly articulated. Brief yet forward looking, and somewhat unexpected in terms of style, it does not completely dissipate the intensity of the previous music, and is far from reassuring.

Verdi’s solo writing is, at times, of operatic proportions, and a glance at the biographies of the four soloists shows that they are well chosen. David Soar (bass) has a particularly fine tone. Rachel Nicholls (soprano) delivers some exquisite notes in the Libera Me, and sings throughout with a sense of imploring, while at the same time maintaining a degree of reverence. The acoustic does not require an overly theatrical performance, and Nicholls seems to be versatile enough to appreciate this.

Leah-Marian Jones (mezzo- soprano) and Justin Lavender (tenor) give sensitive performances in the ensemble items

Verdi’s aptitude for creating a satisfying completion is not lost on this ensemble. The piece ends with the same quiet energy with which it began. A good performance should elucidate the skill of the composer as much as that of the players, and in this respect it is a truly admirable feat.

Anna Campbell