Verdi's 'Requiem' turns operatic in Zinman's hands

June 11, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Verdi's "Requiem" is one of those works that leaves a listener astonished with the thrust of its imagination, the sheer beauty of its sound and the colossal sweep of its architecture. It's a piece that David Zinman has always done well -- he did it tVerdi's "Requiem" is one of those works that leaves a listener astonished with the thrust of its imagination, the sheer beauty of xTC its sound and the colossal sweep of its architecture. It's a piece that David Zinman has always done well -- he did it twice in his 11-year tenure in Rochester, and he concluded his first season as the Baltimore Symphony's music director with it seven years ago -- and last night in Meyerhoff Hall he did it better than ever in his final program of the 1992-1993 season.

What has always made the conductor's performances of the "Requiem" memorable are his natural gifts as a conductor. With its massed choruses, its four demanding vocal solo parts and dynamic and coloristic variety that ranges all over the orchestral map, it's a piece that rewards a conductor with a fine ear, a clear beat, superb coordination and a sense of the dramatic.

When Zinman performed the piece seven years ago, one was struck the discipline and drive of his approach. While those qualities were still there last night -- his treatment of the "Dies Irae" could not have been more searing -- there were some new qualities: a sense of when to relax, an element of risk-taking and a new appreciation for the importance of the contributions made by the chorus and, particularly, by the soprano, mezzo-soprano, bass and tenor soloists.

If seven years ago Zinman treated this piece like a great oratorio, last night he delivered the "Requiem" in a manner that can be called, in the best sense, operatic.

Fortunately, the conductor had a superb cast. The best was Camellia Johnson, a young soprano who may become a national treasure. Hers is a voice that gives the lie to those who say there are no true Verdi voices around. It's a gigantic instrument that can unleash a torrent of sound without ever turning strident and that is equally capable of soft, honeyed singing. She was able to caress each phrase without becoming precious; she was able to make a listener feel that she was singing just for him; and she was able to match her voice beautifully to the others in the vocal quartet. Only in the final "Libera me," did she falter perceptibly, making one suspect that several days of singing at full force in rehearsal had somewhat taxed her stamina.

Johnson was memorably partnered by the firm, lovely singing of mezzo Florence Quivar -- how beautifully they matched each other in the octave passages of the "Agnus Dei" -- who is one of the outstanding interpreters of this part today. The men (tenor Ben Heppner and bass Gary Relyea), while good, were slightly less impressive. Heppner sang with clarity and feeling, but not with, perhaps, the requisite Italianate passion. Relyea's fine contribution was somewhat restricted by a voice that was not large enough to make "Mors stupebit" genuinely stupefying. The combined choruses of the BSO and the University of Maryland at College Park sang with discipline, fine diction and electricity.

The performance will be repeated tonight at 8:15.

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