Critical Reviews of the Verdi Requiem

As I once wrote elsewhere, compliments from the critics are rarely the external validation our chorus seeks – the applause of the audience is sufficient reward, and in the end we sing to scratch our own creative itches, to know we had a hand in making the music come alive.  That said, I’ve found it helpful to review the reviews and weigh the comments of the critics against my own experiences.  These days we typically get comments from three publications:

Jeremy Eichler of the Globe was unusually complimentary and keenly accurate in his observations, impressed by Gatti’s fluid, poised conducting, and attention to musical details:

From the hushed opening bars, Gatti drew out long singing lines from the orchestra, while also clearly prizing textural and rhythmic clarity. He showed a knack for organic tempo choices and transitions that captured the full drama and, at times, fury of this remarkable score. The same might be said of his conducting of the Tanglewood Chorus, which sang superbly, its performance in the Dies Irae duly terrifying yet free of stridency, its Sanctus measured with a welcome dignified gait[…]  The BSO as a whole seemed alert and highly responsive to Gatti’s direction.

I agree with him calling out the responsiveness of the orchestra to the “organic tempo choices”–I’d call Gatti’s frequent rubato, dramatic fermata, and fluidity the defining factor of his time on the podium.  I love Eichler’s observations on the Sanctus, because it means we delivered on Gatti’s previous direction to sing it “with respect.”  It’s satisfying to get that independent validation of our ability to communicate something so intangible.

Eichler also correctly noted that the quartet was “capable but uneven,” preferring the mezzo’s voice the most, but complimenting the female Agnus Dei duet.  Amusingly, he professed confusion over our leaping to our feet several times for our big forte interruptions–and the next night, we cut one of those leaps to make things a little less frantic.  He wasn’t the only one who saw it as a problem.

Brian Jones wrote up our Friday performance in the Boston Music Intelligencer, and almost loved it:  “In retrospect, this was a performance to admire in so many ways that I wish I could say I was as deeply moved as one hopes to be with this splendid music.”  On top of his praise for the soloists he lobbed fair criticisms about the soprano’s odd vowel modifications and the bass’s lack of power.  And it’s clear he noted the responsiveness in dynamics, tone, and tempo between us and the maestro:

His sensitive reading of the score brought forth many lucid and musical moments, and great credit goes to the Tanglewood Festival Chorus for just the right hushed sound here,  or magnificent triumph there. The utter security of singing from memory makes the chorus’s contribution even more significant. Maestro Gatti also conducted without a score.

[…]The other movements were mostly beautiful, and handled with the appropriate degree of intensity and reflection. Gatti made perfect sense of the famous opening bars, with their legendary, hushed iterations of “Re-qui-em,”, and his use of rubato was appropriate and compelling. (One interesting touch in the second movement was as the chorus actually spoke the words “quantus tremor” (“how great a terror”): I had never heard that effect before, and it worked. The Offertorio, Sanctus and Agnus Dei were given much better tempos, although orchestra, chorus and soloists occasionally threatened to slip off the tracks. Several expressive moments in the Lux Aeterna went by with little recognition, but the final movement (“Libera Me”) was the highlight of the evening, and beautifully conceived.

However, noticing them does not mean approving of them.  Despite his praise above, overall he did not seem to care for Gatti’s frequent tempo shifts:

The famous requiems of Verdi, Mozart, Brahms, Faure and a few others present interesting interpretive challenges: so many musicians and listeners are familiar with them that conductors often feel the need to “leave their mark” in ways which sometimes stretch and even snap the threads of musical line for which these works are justifiably noted. Gatti’s approach was most successful in all the shorter movements, but in the second, long movement his tendency to take extra time with breaks in the music, as well as his tempo in the famous “Dies Irae” music (too slow to achieve the gripping drama of those repeated notes and triplets), made the long second movement seem even longer than should have been the case. Many of the numerous sections of this movement were handsomely dealt with, but the overall architecture and sense of line suffered.

I’ve noticed many reviewers similarly criticize an interpretation of a performance if it didn’t match their own favorite version.  While I understand Jones’s commentary on “activist conductors,” I’m pretty sure Gatti’s extra time was borne not out of an egotistic desire to claim the piece as his own, but rather out of a true love for the music and how he conceives it.  I had never heard the Dies Irae that deliberate myself, but while Jones said it sacrifices the gripping drama, I’d say it’s a welcome trade off that allows the internal lines to sing through–it  creates an overall effect that’s even more terrifying than bulldozing through the whole thing.

Finally, David Wright spoke of our opening night performance at Boston Classical Review.  I hesitate to even include him, given his inexplicably contrarian review of our Brahms Requiem, but he has occasionally given passable commentary.  He continues with his usual questionable, attack-filled observations again, suggesting that we lacked diction and rhythmic drive in the Sanctus, claiming the chorus “sounded more like a crowd scene than a chamber choir,” and later calling us “a firm, unobtrusive presence in its supporting role.”   I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s referring to passages where we sing under the soloists.  That said, he did praise our “gusto” for the Dies Irae and the Lacrymosa, and I’d say he was spot on in his observations of the soloists’ strengths and weaknesses individually and as a quartet.  He also wrote well of Gatti’s stewardship:

Throughout the evening, Daniele Gatti’s firm hand could be felt shaping every aspect of the performance, from the almost inaudible opening bars to the soft, measureless chanting of Libera me at the close, and all the high drama in between.

I like the philosophy that “Understanding is a three-edged sword: your side, their side, and the truth.”  The commonalities in all three reviews confirm that this was truly a marvelous performance, distinguished by Gatti’s fluid direction, a challenged but still enjoyable quartet of soloists, and some of the chorus’s most attentive, dedicated singing.  Bravo all, and let’s do it again for Andris Nelsons in the summer!

7 responses to “Critical Reviews of the Verdi Requiem

  1. Bravo, Jeff. I love how you’ve synthesized the best part of these reviews and not been afraid to issue your own challenge to particular points. And of course you’re right that we sing for the audiences, as well as sheer joy at the genius we get to be a part of!

  2. I wonder how differently Andris Nelsons will have you perform the Requiem. If chorus and orchestra come in at the first rehearsal doing things as they did for Maestro Gatti, could it influence Maestro Nelsons?

    And afterwards, it would be very interesting to have a Robert J. Lurtsema to play contrasting passages from both performances.

    BTW, one thing I very much liked was that the soprano did not hit the “tur”s hard in “Liber scriptus,” where we almost always get “profereTUR” and “contineTUR.” No doubt we have Maestro Gatti to thank for that.

    Back to the chorus. I think it’s fair to say that all reviewers noticed the differences between how you sang and the run of the mill performances, even though they may not have understood why Maestro Gattihad you sing it as you did — apparently they didn’t read your blogposts, or they’d have known. So it shows how well you took his direction.

    Another BTW — I wonder how well you think the orchestra and chorus would like performing under him as Music Director. Would his attention to nuance wear well in the long term?

    • Re Nelsons — I expect it to be very different, and the chorus will adjust. After all, we were singing John Oliver’s version on Sunday. He prepares us and then warns us what to expect from the conductor, if known.

      Re Gatti as Music Director — I think we would enjoy it very much. My worry though is that he’s a one-trick pony. Obviously he lives and breathes Verdi and Italian opera and apparently he’s developed a love of Wagner. But the BSO does not live on late-romantic era classics alone. Seiji and James Levine were both versatile enough to handle a variety of programs from different eras.

  3. He’s certainly no “one-trick” pony, Jeff! At 51, he has half a career’s worth of mainly European experience in a broad spectrum of repertory to bring to the BSO, who would certainly continue to grow under his direction. My only hesitation is whether he will allow himself to grow by allowing performers to bring more of their own to each performance, much the way Levine did. His discography, while slim, includes Debussy, Schoenberg, Berg, Bartok, Tchaikovsky, . . . . .

    • Fair enough, and it was unfair of me to characterize him that way given his storied career. But if his style is so clearly defined by his drama, fluidity, and interpretation, then how does he fare with Mozart? Haydn? Or go back to Bach? Or go forward: would his Symphony of Psalms embody the unyielding mechanical approach that Stravinsky favored?

      I shouldn’t judge his ability on one concert’s conducting. But I’m reminded of back when I, ahem, was forced to watch American Idol, and they’d occasionally have a singer who was really gifted at singing a particular style (a crooner, or a country & western type) — and who would struggle mightily on nights when they were forced to sing a different genre. I hope I’m wrong and that he adapts wonderfully to pieces that don’t benefit from his approach, but the discography is all late-romantic and contemporary so it seems clear what he favors.

  4. We did Brahms’ Schicksalslied with him in 2002. It was a very “Italian” interpretation…the opening had so much rubato that I was amazed the tympanist could figure out when to come in! So I also wonder if he will filter everything he does through that style. It’ll be interesting to hear what he does with Mahler 3.

  5. Congratulations on a successful Verdi! We will be singing it next season with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Love the drama in this work and I really enjoy your analysis of the work and the review of the reviews!

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