Verdi’s Requiem

Just back from this evening’s Welsh Prom at St David’s Hall which featured Verdi’s Requiem performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, with the BBC National Chorus of Wales together with the Cardiff Ardwyn Singers and the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir.

I have to admit I must have had a senior moment or two about this because I bought two tickets a while ago but got it into my head that it was last Thursday night. When I looked at the tickets on Thursday, and discovered I’d screwed up,  it transpired the friend I was supposed to go with on Thursday couldn’t make it on Sunday. What a shambles. I think I should apply for home help!

Anyway, I’m glad I went because it’s a fabulous piece that you really have to hear live in order the experience its full effect. Living in Wales might tend  to make one a bit blasé about choral music, but there’s no escaping the awesome power of the massed voices during the famous Dies Irae sequences that return throughout the work, to the accompaniment of a booming bass drum sounding the last judgement. The first time you hear that live I guarantee you’ll be pinned back in your seat.

The latin mass for the dead has inspired some of the greatest music written by some of the greatest composers, but it also seems to bring out something very personal and different from each one. Fauré’s Requiem, for example, is full of a fragile, angelic beauty and it portrays death as joyous release from earthly torment. Verdi’s take is quite different. It’s quite varied, musically, alternately sombre, accepting, meditative and, yes, even joyous too. But you’re never far from the terrifying hammer blows of the Dies Irae; one senses that Verdi’s own view of death was one dominated by fear.

Some say the Verdi Requiem is overwrought, but I don’t think anyone will ever say this piece isn’t dramatic. It’s also full of great tunes and wonderful dramatic contrasts. Is it too melodramatic? That’s a matter of taste. I don’t think it’s melodramatic but it’s certainly operatic, and I certainly don’t mean that to be derogatory. Above all, it’s just very Verdi. And that’s certainly not derogatory either.

The four soloists were all excellent: Yvonne Howard (soprano), Ceri Williams (mezzo), Gwyn Hughes Jones (tenor) and Robert Hayward (bass) and the orchestra did all the right things under the baton of veteran conductor Owain Arwel Hughes.

I enjoyed the performance a lot, but left feeling a bit flat because St David’s Hall was only about 2/3 full. I always enjoy things more when there’s a full house as the atmosphere is always that bit more exciting. I’m not sure why it didn’t attract a better turnout – top price tickets were only £26. Perhaps it was because many classical music fans were listening to the main Prom in London, which this evening featured the great Placido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra?

I’ve never been to one of the Welsh proms before, and was interested to see that, like the Royal Albert Hall, St David’s also has promenaders standing just in front of the orchestra although they were not as numerous as in the Proms themselves.

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8 Responses to “Verdi’s Requiem”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    I’m disappointed to see a lack of comments here, so it might be appropriate to add something myself.

    The Verdi Requiem is an absolutely magnificent piece of music and most readers of this blog will be familiar with the Dies Irae, whether they realise it or not. The distinct theme in the Dies Irae was meant to be very loud and frightening, and it is. It conveys the terror of the Day of Judgement. That theme is therefore played frequently in popular culture these days, particularly on television (almost as often as Orff’s Camina Burana). Most readers of this page will know it. The thumping of the bass drum is so loud in the concert hall that you can feel it in your body, besides hearing it with your ears.

    However, later parts of the Requiem are gentle and lovely. It fades out quietly and serenely.

    It is a pity that St. David’s Hall was only two-thirds full for Peter’s concert, although this also often happens at the B.B.C. Proms concerts in London. My experience of the Welsh Proms a decade ago and more was that they were very enjoyable and the music was very approachable: the choice of pieces included lots of nice tunes, more so than the B.B.C. Proms in London. I would encourage people to go along if they can.

  2. telescoper Says:

    Bryn

    I fully endorse what you say. I’ve heard the piece many times but always find it very powerful. The first introduction of the Dies Irae is a truly spine-tingling moment, but the Requieum is more than just that…indeed, as you say, it ends in a very tranquil way.

    The bass drum used for this performance was the biggest I’ve ever seen – fully 2 metres across. The size of the thing meant the percussion had to sit a very long way from his music. I doubt if I would have been able to read it at that distance.

    It’s worth mentioning the super acoustic in St David’s Hall too. Awesome.

    Peter

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    The acoustics in St. David’s Hall are indeed good. That is something that does matter in a concert hall. The only seats I didn’t like in St. David’s Hall were the ones at the extreme side of the stalls rather near the front. Everywhere else in St. David’s Hall is excellent.

    In contrast to the Welsh Proms, the acoustics for the B.B.C. Proms from the Albert Hall in London are rather poor, and, oddly, the best acoustics there are for the cheap tickets standing in front of the orchestra in the Arena.

    The poorest, and oddest, acoustics I have experienced have been in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. I’ve been to two symphonic concerts there. In the first I was in the nave far from the concert, when the music sounded distant and muffled (a concert that included Strauss’s magnificent Four Last Songs). On the other occasion, I sat close to the orchestra so that the sound came strongly direct from the orchestra, which was much better. My estimate of the time taken for the echo to die off completely was 7 seconds: sound travels 2 km in that time.

  4. telescoper Says:

    Bryn,

    I should also say that the Wales Millennium Centre has very good acoustics even way up in the Gods. For the Requiem at St David’s Hall I was quite high up (Level 5) as I want to try a few different places to see where it’s best. Everywhere I’ve been so far has been really fine.

    The Festival Hall used to be awful but they refurbished it and tried to improve the acoustics. I haven’t been there since then so don’t know if it worked.

    I heard a live broadcast from St Paul’s once; the echo was quite unnerving.

    Peter

  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    Peter,

    I’ve never been to the Wales Millennium Centre. The Donald Gordon Theatre looks on television to be spacious but compact, with all the seats quite close to the stage.

    The acoustics in the Festival Hall in London have improved after the refurbishment, but are still not that good. They were poor before the refurbishment, and I preferred either the expensive seats at the front of the stalls or the very cheap seats in the balcony right at the back. This again shows that there can be little correlation between the cost of a ticket and the quality of the sound. Again in London, the acoustics in the Barbican Concert Hall are very good in my opinion, although some seats at the extreme sides of the stalls near the front do not have a view of the whole stage, which affects the sound for symphony concerts. Apart from that, the acoustics across the whole hall are good.

    If the typical path length between reflections in St. Paul’s Cathedral is 100 metres, my 7 second reverberation (corresponding to 2 km in sound travel distance) means the sound experienced about 20 reflections. If the distance travelled by sound between reflections is 50 metres, there were about 40 reflections of the sound off the surfaces in the Cathedral.

    Bryn.

  6. I so wish I could have heard this Welsh prom – I’ve been searching on the BBC Radio 3 website in the hope of hearing this; I assume it was recorded. If I lived in Cardiff instead of Berkshire, I would have willingly been there. Owain Arwel Hughes did a brilliant TV series on requiems a few years ago – I think it was with the Huddersfield Choral Society – well worth a look if it is available anywhere.

    • telescoper Says:

      I believe the performance was recorded by BBC Radio Cymru and was broadcast there the following week (25th July 2010) but I don’t think it has been broadcast on Radio 3. You might want to try contacting Radio Cymru to ask if any recordings are available.

  7. Thanks very much Peter, I’ll follow your advice up.

    Sue :-)

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