Baltimore Symphony Orchestra delivers delightful Verdi Requiem

June 13, 2011

Verdi’s stunning Requiem is one of classical music’s great crowd-pleasers, heard somewhere in the area at least annually. The Music Center at Strathmore offered different performances less than a month apart, by the National Philharmonic and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; the latter, on Saturday evening, drew a full house.

The performance under Marin Alsop was taut and efficient, offering many pleasures. The BSO was, for once, at full strength (they’ve often sent down something approaching a skeleton crew) and played very impressively for the most part. The soft brass chords that close the “Dies irae” and “Libera me” were beautifully controlled, and the woodwinds were colorful, well-tuned and expressive throughout. The cellos handled the treacherous “Offertorio” opening with aplomb, if not perfectly on pitch.

A successful Requiem requires, above all, four soloists who can soar and emote like opera singers one moment and blend like a cappella choristers the next. Such a balance is very rarely achieved and wasn’t here. The “Pie Jesu Domine” quartet was a mess, and the “Lux aeterna” trio only a little better.

But there were some shining solo moments, particularly from soprano Angela Meade, whose projection and ability to change the color of the voice in any register set her apart. Bass Alfred Walker, while offering a less varied sound, also delivered a stream of compelling, tenebrous beauty with firm rhythm. Mezzo Eve Gigliotti had power aplenty, but the sound lacked focus in her lower register and she often swallowed her consonants. Richard Clement’s tenor was lovely when singing softly in the middle register, but elsewhere sounded uncomfortable.

The Washington Chorus, under Julian Wachner, delivered impressive singing; slightly coarse in the opening “Te decet hymnus,” but well-controlled in the “Dies irae” and whiplike in the closing fugue. Alsop’s direction was clear and unfussy, and she had care for balances throughout. She does not dig deeply into the music, and faster sections were played more for sizzle than for steak. But totting up everything, this was one of the best Requiem performances we’ve had in recent seasons.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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