Prom 13: Verdi’s Requiem

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Giuseppe Verdi in 1872.

Prom 13:
Verdi: Requiem

Marina Poplavskaya – soprano
Mariana Pentcheva – mezzo-soprano
Joseph Calleja – tenor
Ferruccio Furlanetto – bass

BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC National Chorus of Wales
London Philharmonic Choir
BBC Symphony Orchestra

Semyon Bychkov – conductor

Temporary immortality. The Verdi Requiem is an event, a masterpiece, an emotional catharsis, but also an old shoe. Well worn by dozens of recordings since two great ones, by Toscanini and De Sabata, started the grooves turning, it hasn’t been saved from familiarity by being magnificent, any more than the Grand Canyon has. What do you do to breathe life back into music that has been worn down by so many feet? (I apologize to readers who feel that I’m asking the equivalent of “Caviar again? Didn’t we have that yesterday?”)

To leap into the deep end, is music everlasting? Does it save us, for an hour or two, from being mortal? The issue of music’s immortality and our own is wrapped up in Verdi’s conception. Famously an atheist, he composed a Mass that is usually pigeonholed by calling it his greatest opera (at the premiere in 1874, three of the four soloists had sung in the European premiere of Aida two years previously). Atheism doesn’t exempt you from holy terror and the heebie-jeebies about death. It’s amazing that Verdi had any left. He was practiced at killing off characters and portraying the grief that followed. Compared to Wagner, who turned the deaths of Tristan and Isolde into metaphysics — he originally titled the Liebestod as “Transfiguration” (Verklarung) —, Verdi, who knew farm life better than Wagner knew Schopenhauer, treated death as a shocking physical event brought about, in the opera world, by rage and jealousy. Dying for love, you get exaltation in Wagner, a passionate sendoff into the void in Verdi.

The void is terrifying, so it’s telling that most people come away remembering the Dies Irae in the Verdi Requiem, with three bass drums at the ready and blasts from the brass that rend the fabric of heaven. Equally telling, when he began to compose the work, Verdi first set down the last movement, Libera me, in which the soul begs for liberation, not from sin and earthly bondage (the intent of the Catholic text) but from the terror that Verdi so viscerally evokes. His sovereign hand reverses the words when it suited him, with music that means far more. A translation of the bass solo, “Mors stupebit,” reads:

Death and nature will be astounded,
when all creation rises again.

Verdi’s music says no such thing — it’s like a nightmare of being stalked by the hangman, or meeting the wrong end of Sparafucile’s dagger in an alley. One suspects Wagner of spiritual overreaching, but Verdi couldn’t help being sincere and searing. He had a bipolar soul, as evinced in the Tomb Scene that ends Aida, where the horror of suffocating to death sits cheek to jowl with sublime, floating consolation through love. On a cosmic scale this romantic equation faltered. Verdi may have believed that being deeply loved by another human being was redemptive; he didn’t give God the benefit of the same doubt. There’s little love music in the Requiem, although there is much tenderness, delivered not by the Almighty but by Verdi as, after all, a kind of Almighty since he was the work’s creator.

Under the experienced Semyon Bychkov, the manichean structure of Verdi’s cosmology was not as terrifying as it could have been — it’s hard to keep the Dies Irae from sounding like a stereophonic lalapalooza — but for the cheering throngs in Albert Hall, the reading he led was triumphant. One aspect certainly was, the choral singing. Verdi calls for a double choir, and with 300 singers in the loft, we had every possible variation on whispering, pleading, exalting, and thundering. Tuning was impeccable, and the tenors and sopranos were fearless when they were asked to be a troop of Aidas and Radames. The BBC Symphony was expert if not superlative, and the four soloists, three of whom duplicated Covent Garden’s successful Simon Boccanegra from last season, were splendid (it’s too much to ask, in our diminished era, for heroic voices, but Verdi’s original quartet may well have had medium-sized voices, too). The palm for best singing is divided between soprano Marina Poplavskaya, subtle in her phrasing and angelic in her top notes, and tenor Joseph Calleja, whose smooth tonal production and fast beat remind you at moments of the sainted Pavarotti.

But as to immortality . . .

Forty years ago Leonard Bernstein worried publicly about the wearing-down effect of recordings and too much repetition, at a time when it was starting to become a tradition in Japan, for instance, to perform the Beethoven Ninth in dozens of locations on New Year’s Day. The German essayist Walter Benjamin wrote a dense piece on “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” as did the French eminence Andre Malraux in his far-sighted book, The Museum Without Walls. The pessimistic side of the issue is that we may be eroding the power of art — surely no one on earth is surprised and delighted to see the Mona Lisa in some ad for wrinkle remover. The optimistic side is that millions of people, even billions, can avail themselves of great poetry, paintings and music. But I don’t approach this through my mood, which swings between both poles.

The renewal of music is the same as the renewal of the spirit. Verdi and Wagner are not about enjoyment and pleasure. They are about the truth contained in beauty, a finger pointing to the beyond as Leonardo’s St. John points heavenward with one finger and an enigmatic, beatific smile. As long as we have transcendence, either as a hope or certainty, music is immortal, not by lasting a long, long time but by opening a passage to — where? Our souls, our higher nature? Heaven or transcendent Nature? The terms don’t matter, since it seems to be packaged into human nature to yearn. We crave the shift from everyday reality into a higher domain that cannot be pictured or perhaps even imagined.

We can only wait for encoded messages, and the most sublime code, for me, is music. It’s the only art with “muse” as its root word, for good reason. The mystery of inspiration is purest in music. We all use words; we all see images through our eyes. But to receive music as Verdi did is given to a small handful of people, and they, to be candid, have no idea where it comes from. Brahms said that music came to him from a faint quivering in silence that then grew into audible notes. Good enough.

Sitting in the hall listening to the Verdi Requiem, I experience a slower transition into musical grace than I once did. Most of the opening Requiem aeternam passes me by. I’m more likely to be irritated by lingering coughers as they settle down than moved by the chorus invoking eternity. But eternity is a process — a surprising conclusion to reach, perhaps — and once the process sinks in, you are home free. Free to soar for ninety minutes, borrowing death’s wings, and free to exist in the realm of practical grace.

About Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.