Sunday 8 February 2009

Dvorak's Requiem - Jarvi and the London Philharmonic

The first thing I noticed, when glancing at the LPO website before setting out for this concert, was that Karen Cargill was in it, this only a month since we last came across her in another requiem (Verdi's).

Dvorak's Requiem is a rather different work. It is performed less often and, frankly, there seems good reason for this. That's not to say it's a bad work, far from it: not only was this an enjoyable performance, and one I'm very glad to have attended, but it is also always interesting to hear a work for the first time. However, it does not seem to have the same clarity of vision as the Verdi, nor the quite the same spiritual power. It is not transporting in the same way.

There are some fine moments, and some good fireworks along the way, especially in the Offertory, the Hostias and the wonderful Angus Dei. However, it doesn't quite seem to hang together as a whole. Compare, say, to his seventh symphony, which I have recently had cause to examine in some detail: there the work has a binding sense of structure and purpose.

For, we were told, 'artistic' reasons, an interval was added. The work is divided into two parts, and the fact that the first ends with an 'amen' would seem to support that it was written with this intention. But that only suggests it was written for the same bygone age where the Verdi requiem was performed with an interval (as is the case in the DVD performance from Giulini and the Philharmonia in 1964). You wouldn't dream of doing that these days, and I would suggest you shouldn't with the Dvorak either. That said, I did find the second half hung together better structurally.

Neeme Jarvi is a fine and unmannered conductor, who previously impressed me at the Festival two years ago doing some Sibelius. He drew superb playing from the LPO, again making me question how any self-respecting critic can suggest the LSO is the only British orchestra among the world's greatest.

The soloists were good too. Cargill has impressed me several times before, and did so again tonight with her beautiful and powerful voice. However, she was finely matched by both soprano Lisa Milne and bass Peter Rose. To the extent there was a weak link in the quartet, it was tenor Peter Auty, whose voice didn't always have quite the power one might have liked.

The London Philharmonic Choir, under Neville Creed were superb, whether in terms of diction, power, or, as in the closing moments, delicacy. Indeed, their contribution was one of the highlights of the performance and it ranks them as one of the finer choirs I have heard in recent years.

It seems, from the presence of a great many microphones, that the evening was being recorded for posterity, and doubtless release on the orchestra's own label. While it will not rank as a must buy, it is probably a should buy if you've never heard it before.

A couple of interesting notes remain. First, the organ, which sounded slightly wimpy, appears to have shrunk after the refurbishment, taking up less that half the space it used to. I'd be keen for any light anyone can shed.

Secondly, in the Foyer on the (I think) blue side, at any rate, the box office side, there is a wonderful work of art: a sculpture of a symphony orchestra made of card, the card is covered with a score of a Beethoven symphony. Superb stuff. The plaque tells you it was made by a prisoner. Nothing wrong with that, you might think. Indeed, nice that someone who's harmed society has put something beautiful back into it. To be applauded, you might argue. Unless, of course, you were the somewhat disturbed gentleman who told me, and everyone else in the men's room on level two during the interval, how awful it was that the work of a convicted criminal (probably, he said, a murderer, though any evidence he may have had to substantiate this was not presented at the urinal) was on display when his own was not. He changed his tune somewhat, and that it was a good thing the person's work was on display as it showed the kind of world we lived in. I decided that discretion was the better part of valour. However, I suspect there is probably a good reason his work is not on display in the South Bank Centre.

Update: 7-3-2009

Well, this explains why the organ looked so funny (thanks to my father for spotting the story). Apparently it was taken out for restoration and the job is only half-finished. This means it can be used for works like the requiem but not for solo recitals. We wish it a speedy recovery, though contrary to the article's title, there does not appear to be a fund for its restoration. Apparently we will hear it in its full glory in 2011.


Anonymous said...

Doesn't have the same spiritual power as the Verdi? Considering that Verdi's Requiem is entirely devoid of spirituality and is purely operatic/dramatic, I'm not sure what to make of that remark.

Tam Pollard said...

I suppose the only thing to make of it is that we have profoundly different views of the Verdi Requiem, which I regard as an intensely spiritual work (in which context it makes perfect sense to say that I don't find the Dvorak to have the same power).

The best performances I've heard of the Verdi (Runnicles opening the Edinburgh festival a few years back, Giulini on DVD) have been remarkable partly because of their spiritual qualities.

I think it's a little tenuous to suggest that a mass setting is entirely devoid of spirituality. I wouldn't dispute that it is dramatic and has operatic qualities too, though.

Then again, such things are, to a great extent, in the ear of the beholder.

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