Monday 19 March 2018




While the bicentenaries of the births of both Verdi and Wagner fall this year, commemorative events here have been slim on the ground. However, a gesture on RTÉ's part brings Verdi's Messa da Requiem to the National Concert Hall.

The Mass dates from 1874 following the death of the inspirational novelist Alessando Manzoni. Greatly respected by the agnostic Verdi, the deeply catholic writer had become a symbol of the Risorgimento that led to the 1871 unification of Italy – a movement the composer had actively supported.

Verdi's setting of the Latin Tridentine rite Mass for the Dead calls on large forces and, under Belfast-born conductor Kenneth Montgomery, the balance between choir and orchestra is, for the most part, evenly matched.

Interestingly, Maestro Montgomery repositions some of the musicians, with second violins and double basses changing places respectively with cellos and percussion. The performance, dedicated to the memory of Seamus Heaney, generates its own brand of intense excitement in the exceptionally dramatic Dies Irae Sequence, Sanctus and concluding Libera me Responsary.

But there are also many passages of appealing delicacy, not least in the opening Requiem aeternam and later Agnus Dei as well as in the intermittent periods of gentle petition in the quieter sections of both Sequence and Libera me.

RTÉ's Philharmonic Choir copes incisively with Verdi's excessive demands with its fortissimo singing vibrant and unforced, and its sensitive pianissimi smooth and refined.

Kenneth Montgomery, whose choice of tempi ensures the performance never drags, draws some sympathetic playing from the RTÉ NSO.

There can be overwhelming volume from the effulgent brass, but here is music at its most theatrical, even if its context is religious.

The evening's visiting and native soloists find bass Andrew Greenan manfully stepping in at very short notice for the indisposed Matthew Best. Tenor Bruce Sledge's biography describes him aptly as 'tenori di grazia' and his Ingemisco shows him at his most lyrically secure in unbroken musical phrasing.

Mezzo Imelda Drumm demonstrates her fine range to positive effect, particularly in her passionate Liber scriptus and again in her suppliant duet, Recordare, Jesu pie, with soprano Miriam Murphy.

Ms Murphy's own contribution to the commemoration is quite startling. With tremendous tone she cuts a swathe through Verdi's orchestral barrage with unwavering clarity. There may be an occasional glitch here and there and, while the voice itself may not be meltingly attractive on the ear, it is nonetheless penetratingly luminous.

Irish Independent

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