Peter Reed
Classical Source
September 2009

The mealy-mouthed opinion that the 'Messa da Requiem' is Verdi’s finest opera has long been discredited, if only because it has none of the clash and growth of character that is at the heart of opera. Instead Verdi gives us his response to a liturgical text of the highest drama in music easily its equal, creating one of the 19th-century’s most vivid public expressions of sacred music.

Sir Colin Davis understands this work only too well and invests the wilder passages with a savagery some conductors half his age might think twice about. Any attempts to peg this particular Missa pro defunctis to the intricacies of Roman Catholic ritual miss the point; Davis gives us the Day of Judgment in all its high anxiety, fear and foreboding, with its hints of consolation only grudgingly given. A few listeners might take issue with some of Davis’s speeds—the opening section is more Adagio than Andante, and the 'Agnus Dei' doesn’t hang about (which must have been a relief for the singers)—but they make complete sense within the context of Davis’s visionary approach. And visionary it certainly is, in particular the long 'Dies irae' sequence, one of the most thrilling and cogent I have heard. Davis gets the point of the textually unscheduled reappearances of the 'Dies irae' material, so that there is always the sub-text of dread that the crack of doom can open up at any moment. Each of the incisively characterised sections flows naturally out of each other—the slabs of brass in a speaker-bursting 'Tuba mirum' yielding to the nihilistic doubt of 'Mors stupebit' is superbly achieved—and the sheer grief of the 'Lacrymosa' is fantastically well expressed. In many performances, the temperature lowers in the subsequent movements to the extent that it is hard to get back to the terror and absence of consolation in the concluding 'Libera me', but Davis has the measure of the evocation of fragile bliss in 'Domine Jesu' and the swirling spiritual energy of the 'Sanctus'.

This is one of the most driven things I’ve heard Davis do—penetrating, on-the-edge conducting that digs deep into the music’s astounding emotional range, and he is rewarded with similarly engaged, idiomatic playing. Try the clear articulation of chaos at the opening of the 'Dies irae'; or listen to the bassoon obbligato in 'Quid sum miser', which has never sounded so bleak.

The London Symphony Chorus sings with such presence and immediacy that it sounds as though its members are performing from memory. Sometimes the men are a bit louder than lovely, but their attack and response are awesome.

The four soloists are equally impressive. Christine Brewer, singing with heroic splendour, takes no hostages with the various gifts Verdi presents to her, superlative as she soars into the ether in the 'Lacrymosa', and at her commanding, dramatic best in the concluding 'Libera me'. Karen Cargill (who replaced Larissa Diadkova), a light, athletic mezzo who blends very satisfyingly in the ensemble passages, is very distinguished throughout the 'Dies irae', and hair-raisingly good in 'Liber scriptus' and 'Lacrymosa'. The men are more obviously Italianate and operatic: tenor Stuart Neill never looks back from a stunning first entry in the 'Kyrie'; and bass John Relyea has the authority of the Inquisitor and the darkness of Iago. The two tenor and bass arias in the 'Ingemisco' are superb.

Producer James Mallinson and engineer Jonathan Stokes compensate for the Barbican Hall’s lack of resonance with a carefully layered recording of clarity and, surprisingly, spaciousness, and the work’s vast dynamic range comes across without distortion. Highly recommended.