Prolific as he was, Verdi set the "Requiem" to music only once, at the very peak of his abilities. It is a work of such concentrated eloquence and power that he must have reasoned later, What more could I possibly have to say?
More than a little of this power in Verdi's work was conveyed by the Cathedral Choral Society, four soloists and members of the National Symphony in their performance of the "Requiem" at Washington Cathedral yesterday.
The better you get to know this lengthy musical canvas, the clearer it becomes that--for all its thundering drums and brass fanfares--much of its greatness is in its more reflective moments. Consider the harmonic daring and the startling economy of means in the "Offertory," with those riveting descending scales.
These broad lyric passages were the ones that were served best in yesterday's performance. There was bass Donald Gramm's strong and dark singing of "Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine" at the end of the "Lux Aeterna." There was contralto Lili Chookasian's deep, sensitive singing throughout the performance. Tenor Gene Tucker was capable, though he lacks the clarion ring normally found in this part. Soprano Esther Hinds made a lovely sound, although in this most taxing of the parts, her phrasing was a little tentative, as if to exercise extra caution at the hardest points.
What suffered most from the echos, post-echos and post-post-echos of the cathedral's acoustics were the rapid passages, particularly those that were heavily contrapuntal. The "Sanctus" was simply swamped, through no fault of conductor Paul Callaway. His overall view of the work was broad and deeply felt. As to matters of balance and articulation, how can one be sure much of the time in so cavernous a chamber? Since many of the National Symphony's finest players were performing, one takes their work at the cathedral on faith, as it were.
The chorus sounded strong and full.