A Requiem that reaches Verdi's goal

November 19, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

I don't think anyone could have felt comfortable singing or playing at the tempo that Mario Venzago selected for the opening of the "Dies Irae" ("Day of Wrath") movement in the Swiss conductor's performance of Verdi's Requiem Mass last night in Meyerhoff Hall. But this is the music in Verdi's great nonoperatic masterpiece that depicts Judgment Day. That is likely to be a scary time for all of us. One suspects the composer, who surely did not want his listeners to feel comfortable, also did not want the orchestra, the four soloists and the chorus to take what they had to play for granted.

That's a likely reason Verdi chose his fast metronome marking. And it's probably why, aside from the matter that it is the composer's, Venzago strove to achieve such a tempo: It can produce the searingly intense experience that Verdi intended the "Dies Irae" (and most of the rest of the Requiem) to be.

I don't think I've ever heard (at least in the concert hall) a more hair-raising "Dies Irae" -- and much of the performance, Venzago's first with the orchestra since his recent appointment as artistic director of Summer MusicFest, was just as fine.

His performance was intelligent as well as passionate and honest. He knew when to hold his forces back and when to give them their heads so that the Requiem's big moments would be all the more impressive. Some of the performance's quiet moments were equally telling -- not least the way the lovely flute-playing combined with the voices of the female soloists during the "Agnus Dei" to produce what sounded like the music of the spheres.

Fine as it was, however, I suspect the performance listeners will hear tonight and on Saturday evening will be better still. Perhaps because there was some rough going -- the chorus coped less successfully with the conductor's tempos than the orchestra -- the exciting thrust of the individual moments last night did not always create a comparably satisfying, sustained musical line.

And while all four soloists -- tenor Jon Villars, bass Peter Rose, soprano Phyllis Pancella and soprano Indra Thomas -- sang splendidly, perhaps Thomas will prove a better colleague to Pancella. This young soprano may have had the best voice on the stage, but she should not have permitted it to cover Pancella's during the "Agnus Dei."

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