Of the jewels in the crown of the choral music repertoire, few works -- if any -- approach the intensity of Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem.
Composed in 1873 in tribute to the poet Alessandro Manzoni, Verdi's friend and fellow Italian nationalist, the Requiem is one of the true "musts" for all choristers at some point in their musical lives.
Yes, it's an episodic piece. Agreed, it's not the most organically flowing work imaginable. Of course, there are many interludes that lend themselves to interpretive excess.
But, pure and simple, the Verdi Requiem is the most electrifying, hair-raising piece to sing in the entire canon. When that bass drum pounds in the "Dies Irae" sequence, it pounds for thee.
Verdi viewed the liturgy for the dead in the same way that he viewed everything else -- as a potential libretto for grand opera. And with the drama of the Mass conveyed in such passionate style, the artistic demands of the work are extraordinary.
For a chorus, the Verdi Requiem ranks with Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" and the Bach B-Minor Mass as one of the toughest. Verdi demands great extremes of sound, from triple pianissimos to the most thunderous fortissimos you'll ever hear. The harmonies -- as always in Verdi -- are tightly together, and the music is an absolute bear to keep in tune.
As for soloists, the honey-voiced oratorio singers who grace so many of the smaller-scaled "Messiahs" and "Creations" being recorded these days need not apply. This is a job for the Schwartzkopfs, Prices, Hornes, Pavarottis, Domingos and Ghiaurovs of the world. It's opera in spades.
Not surprisingly, first-class Verdi Requiems are a rarity. All the more reason, then, to celebrate the account turned in by Ernest Green and the Annapolis Chorale Saturday evening at Maryland Hall. This performance provided yet another opportunity to gauge just how far the chorale has progressed in recent years as this area's premier vocal ensemble.
Green presided over a very satisfying Verdi Requiem. He clearly loves and feels this music and did an exceptional job of training his singers to face the vicissitudes of Verdi.
Under his baton, the piece flowed convincingly. Green is no dawdler; he's tended to favor brisk tempos in just about everything I've heard him conduct. Verdi, however, brought out his more expansive instincts. The "Lacrymosa" in particular was wonderfully deliberate, just indulgent enough to let the pathos shine through. I felt the same way about the beginning of the Offertory, the "Recordare," and many other lyrical interludes.
Still, when it was time to unload, as in the "Dies Irae," there was no doubt as to Green's commitment to the "full speed ahead" approach.
Green's flair for the dramatic also came across in the magnificent build-up to the "Tuba mirum," in which a pair of trumpets planted in the balcony gave a stereophonic flair to the text: "The trumpet, blasting its wondrous sound throughout the tombs of every land."
The singers were terrific. Their choral sound, so often beaten down by brittle, unresonant Maryland Hall, was massive and thrilling, which means that each singer had to be pumping it out like mad. Their diction was admirable and the sheer awareness of text threw the liturgical drama off the stage, out to several hundred appreciative listeners.
Given what he had to work with, Green got great sound from his players. With only 10 violins and four cellos (each section could easily have been tripled!), orchestral interludes sounded expert but small. Even so, with the excellent trumpets, trombones, bassoons and percussion on hand, this was an orchestra to be reckoned with.
Only the soloists proved disappointing. Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Barnes-Burroughs seemed the closest to a full-fledged Verdi soloist. In the "Liber scriptux," "Lux aeterna" and "Recordare" duet, she sang sensitively, accurately and dramatically.
Soprano Melissa Locher had her moments but, ultimately, experienced a tough night at the office. At her best -- the "Recordare" duet, for example -- she was up to the task. But she failed to deliver the goods twice in the "Agnus Dei." After bobbling an entrance badly, she was completely unable to negotiate the high B-flat later in the movement. Admittedly, it's an ascent to the stratosphere, but that's how big-time sopranos make their money.
Baritone Edward Crafts is the musical equivalent of a pitcher with a great fastball who still needs to learn how to pitch. He has a terrific voice, but there was no tonal variety in "Mors stupebit," no melting beauty in the "Hostias" and not much finesse anywhere.
I reacted similarly to tenor Paul McIlvane. Where was the gorgeous, rapt pianissimo that many fine tenors bring to the "Hostias"? There was also some weird pronunciation (kyri-eye e-leye-son?) and several notable inaccuracies in the quartets and trios.
Soloists aside, this was indeed a triumphal evening for Green and his singers. And we now know that any conductor who says it's impossible to fill up Maryland Hall with sound simply hasn't tried hard enough.