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SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL CONCERT REVIEW
Verdi Requiem: Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Conductor, Yuri Temirkanov; Krassimira Stoyanova (soprano), Olga Borodina (mezzosoprano), Francesco Meli (tenor), Orlin Anastassov (bass); Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome, 8.2.2011 (JB)
All works of the performing arts get into the category of “the great” when they show us, with the particular intelligence of the latest performers, that there are matters to be understood and enjoyed which we had not noticed before. Just think of the Shakespeare plays, the Mozart piano concertos or the Verdi operas, to take a few random qualifiers. In recent seasons, the audience of Rome’s Santa Cecilia have been dealt some remarkably thoughtful performances of the Verdi Requiem, with Barenboim visiting with his La Scala orchestra and chorus, with Mehta and with the orchestra’s resident chief conductor, Antonio Pappano – this last recorded by EMI and issued on CD.
Now Yuri Temirkanov has arrived with a star-studded quartet of soloists, rearranged the orchestra seating and balance and given us an entirely “new” Verdi Requiem. There seems to be no limit as to what a musically intelligent conductor will find in this masterpiece. And I thought I knew the Requiem intimately!
If, like me, you were fond of the old Giulini recording, you will recall the irritation of having to constantly adjust the volume controls during the playing: at one minute, the sound was so quiet as to be inaudible, at the next, it was blasting the speakers. These extremes of dynamics are clearly indicated by Verdi, but no one has yet solved the problem of how to get them satisfactorily onto record. Live performance is another matter.
Yuri Temirkanov brought some Russian weather with his dynamic colourings. The pianissimi were cast over with a mysterious, menacing veil of mist; singularly appropriate, not least for its persistence, giving a feeling of stretching into eternity. The apocalyptic thunderous outbursts were as freezing and severe as a Siberian winter, the kinds of sounds which chill a listener to the marrow. And again, unapologetic and uncompromising.
Every schoolboy knows that the Requiem is Verdi’s finest dramatic opera. And Temirkanov makes no compromises on that front either. This couldn’t have been more different to Pappano’s endearingly warm Mediterranean rendering. Or more valid. As with many another Russian conductor, Temirkanov is authoritative. That very quality of conviction marries well with this Verdi drama.
All these sounds had been planned down to the last detail. The conductor placed the orchestra’s bass instruments to his right, with the treble instruments to his left and the timpani and bass drum raised on a platform behind the orchestra. I didn’t attend any rehearsals, but I found myself wondering how many times he must have said to the bass drum player, Don’t dare apologise for those fortissimo jabs which you must interject. The new seating arrangements meant there were orchestral sounds which these players had never heard themselves make before. And that is surely the best way of focusing all the musical energy of the players on what they are doing.
For the sake of completion, I have to report that Yuri Temirkanov did not get the electric response from the Santa Cecilia Chorus which he got from the orchestra. Pappano scores much better here, but after all, they are used to working with him.
Olga Borodina made her Rome debut at a small (600 seat) theatre, a decade or so ago in a recital with piano. This tall, blond, glamorous woman swept onto the stage and with her first note blasted the entire audience out into the street. Or so it seemed. The effect was shattering. Voices of this size are just not to be found anymore. Nor, outside former Soviet territories, is this type of voice. She sings what are called mezzo soprano roles but hers is the real contralto voice. Her notes – and particularly her low notes - set up a more complex harmonic series. Legato is child’s play for her as it was for Kathleen Ferrier. The contralto voice, with its headmistressish overtones, is somewhat unfashionable these days. But what an admirable, unflinching partner Borodina made for Temirkanov. Her very solidity and richness of tone gives credence to the words she sings. And to add to her God-given instrument, there is also her impeccable Russian technique. It is almost only in former Soviet territories where singers are still taught to produce sound as though the microphone had never been invented. Projection is natural to them. And effortless. There was a telling duet with her and the tenor, he going increasingly red in the face with every muscle strained while she simply opened her mouth to let this immense sound fall out.
Francesco Meli is, in fact, one of the old school of Italian tenors. When he doesn’t force, he makes remarkably beautiful sounds. He also has the very considerable merit of sounding sincere with the text of the Requiem. The Bulgarian bass, Orlin Anastassov, was singing through a cold on the night I heard him (the Accademia staged three performances and I attended the last) – and performing convincingly well under those circumstances. Bulgaria also gave us the soprano, Krassimira Stoyanova, who, the programme informs me, has sung this role with almost every important conductor on today’s scene. Her voice is pretty enough and she handled the B flat octave leap pianissimo with great taste and ease in the Libera Me. But she sometimes sounded underpowered. Or maybe that was because she was standing next to Olga Borodina. That would indeed be an unfair comparison of two very different types of voice. And besides, Verdi calls for a contrast in the two women’s roles. His sympathies tended to lie with the mezzo, to whom he usually gives the more interesting music. Just think of the roles of Aida and Amneris. A programme note says that Borodina is about to appear in Aida at the Met. But in which role? Dimitrova used to alternate in the two.