Stellar soloists lift Verdi Requiem with Boston Philharmonic

April 25, 2016 at 5:14 pm

By David Wright

Benjamin Zander conducted the Boston Philharmonic in Verdi’s Requiem Sunday at Symphony Hall.

You couldn’t tell the players without a program, and an updated program at that, but in the end a stellar quartet of soloists led the way in Sunday’s moving performance of Verdi’s Requiem by the Boston Philharmonic and Chorus pro Musica, led by Benjamin Zander, at Symphony Hall.

An inserted page in the printed program indicated that three of the four featured singers were late substitutes for previously-announced artists. Only soprano Angela Meade remained from the original lineup.

It didn’t seem like a recipe for glorious ensemble singing.  But the newcomers—mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti, tenor Isaachah Savage, tenor, and bass-baritone Alfred Walker—brought not only splendid, hall-filling voices, but fine ears for sound and interpretation, enabling them not only to play well with others but to pick up on Zander’s concept of the piece.  One would not have known this foursome and conductor had not been rehearsing together for weeks.

Zander’s manner on the podium was anything but flamboyant as he steered his mixed ensemble of professional, student, and amateur players through Verdi’s challenging score, apparently having decided to keep this performance out of the opera house and focus instead on the work’s spiritual message.

Listeners familiar with the work may have regretted the softening of Verdi’s coups de theâtre—the sudden, stark contrast between the flashy choral “Sanctus” and the monastic duet “Agnus dei,” for example, or the tenor solo “Ingemisco” performed as a show-stopping aria. 

But keeping the performance on a more even keel allowed a listener to pick up on telling orchestral details, even in such turbulent moments as the harrowing “Dies irae,” where bright piccolo flashes and woodwind flares accented the howling chorus and rushing strings.

Chorus pro Musica, prepared by its music director Jamie Kirsch, sang with energy and commitment, but needed more vocal focus and clear diction to cut through the orchestra and make its presence felt in the large hall.  It proved better at conveying the anguished roar of the “Dies irae” than the dancing fugue of the “Sanctus.”

For most of its course, this work seemed to “star” the mezzo-soprano soloist as the bearer of most of its message.  Mezzo Cornetti rose to the role with fine, arching lines, her voice consistent in quality from the highest to lowest notes and in all dynamics from tenderest pianissimo to trumpet-like fortissimo. 

After cutting loose with some startlingly loud high notes in the opening “Kyrie,” tenor Savage quickly took the measure of the hall and his fellow performers and tailored his dynamic range to the occasion.  Even at that, his high notes had plenty of ring—the “Ingemisco” leaving nothing to be desired in that department—and his sensitive ensemble work and natural phrasing in soft singing were just as distinguished.

Bass-baritone Walker matched the higher-pitched singers with a powerful, forward-placed voice that gave a ring of authority to “Confutatis” and other assertive passages.

While it was featuring the mezzo, Verdi’s score “hid” the soprano soloist, having her join ensembles and contribute a well-placed high note here and there, but never step forward with an individual statement.  But all that changed in the work’s closing passage, “Libera me,” a scena in several sections for soprano and chorus.

On Sunday, soprano Meade delivered the work’s closing prayer with unforgettable eloquence, passionate one moment and serene the next, meeting the composer’s vocal demands, especially for soft, high entrances, with little apparent effort. 

Meade’s uplifting rendition sent the piece out literally on a high note, touching off a prolonged ovation that also recognized the sincerity, seriousness of purpose, and manifold beauties of this performance. 

TheBoston Philharmonic performs works of Auerbach, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky, Oct. 20, 22, and 23 in Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre or NEC’s Jordan Hall.  bostonphil.org; 617-236-0999.

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