CLASSICAL MUSIC Verdi's Requiem Barbican Centre, London

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The Independent Culture
Private prayer or public stage whisper? The first choral entry of Verdi's Requiem - one word, "Requiem" - is usually as good an indication as we have of the performance to come. On Sunday night, Sir Colin Davis's LSO Chorus breathed enough drama into that one word to shake the ecclesiastical hush to its foundations. The Requiem was on stage again - very grand, very public.

Sir Colin loves a grand public racket, of course, and throughout this, the opening Kyrie, patience assumed a somewhat ponderous, self-denying manner, almost as if the curtain were still to rise on Act 1. The initial hush (descending cello arpeggios magically disembodied) duly lifted to reveal plainer colours; the prayer lacked conviction once it could be clearly heard. The basses' entry at "Te decet hymnus" was surprisingly flabby and unarresting. Elderly. Or sage, depending upon your viewpoint. But once the solo voices, the leading protagonists, had taken the stage, a religious drama began to unfold. And the heavens opened, and the big drums thundered, and suddenly Davis was King Lear running amok in the Judgement Hall.

"Blow wind and crack your cheeks!" Just so. This Dies Irae was as fullblown and hard-hitting and sheerly theatrical as can be: Act 1, Scene 1 of Otello all over again. Davis comes alive when he can exert some muscle (you could see it written all over his face as he summoned his trumpet cohorts from the rear of the auditorium at the brassy height of the "Tuba mirum"). It takes years off him. But he's of a generation and a persuasion that still believes in the ceremonial of music. Hence the monumental tempi, the big old-fashioned ritardandi (what a corker that was in the Dies Irae), the "stagey" atmospherics. They were all writ large here: the great tollings of pizzicato string basses, trombones and tuba in the Lux terna; the baleful trombones in the aftermath of the Dies Irae; or the eternal string tremolando reaching for a consoling "Amen" at the close of that movement. It was, in short, a highly "operatic" reading, decently sung and interestingly cast.

It's amazing how much you can learn about a set of soloists from those highly exposed first entries in the Kyrie. It was, for instance, immediately apparent that the bass, Gudjon Oskarsson, would fare best in declamation. This plain-speaking and very Scandinavian voice was to prove somewhat white and sour of pitch (very little vibrato "cover") in anything less. Then came the tenor, the American Stuart Neill, secure, confident, instantly attention-grabbing. A real tenor with a full, warm, burnished tone and absolutely no technical problems that I could detect. We looked forward to the "Hostias et preces" and were not disappointed, his sweet, caressing mezza voce leading the ear on towards a deftly placed trill - or at least the illusion of one. He has a natural feeling for the Italianate style, does Neill, and he's eminently musical. Watch out for him.

The mezzo, Enkelejda Shkosa, was a last-minute substitute who didn't sound like one (the best kind of plummy timbre and more finesse than chest, which makes a change in this role), and the soprano, the upcoming Hungarian, Georgina Lukacs, though plainly nervous on her first entry - big notes, ample bloom, compromised by momentary loss of control - was at once promising.

Even so, with a big career in the offing, there is work to be done here. The soprano role in Verdi's Requiem is cast high and quiet for much of the time, so the big notes aren't really the thing. The legato, the line, is. And as yet Lukacs is not entirely reliable in taking the sound away and floating it securely, unwaveringly, on the breath (pitch slips are rather too frequent). When it does work for her - as in the treacherous high B-flat at the close of the central a cappella section of the Libera Me - it's lovely, and there's an exciting Tosca- like temperament about the singing, which is exactly what Davis's reading demanded of her 11th hour plea for deliverance.

The LSO Chorus's finest moments were to come with that imperative final fugue (Lukacs's climactic top C brought the hands up to the chest like Tosca, the Madonna). Hefty but exciting. And good value. A Verdi Requiem of the old school in which one might have predicted the Sanctus would sound a little like the heavenly host cloud-hopping in unsuitable footwear.

The LSO's next concert is on Thursday: Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos conducts Rossini's overture `L'Italiana in Algeri', Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No 2 (with Horacio Gutierrez) and Stravinsky's `The Rite of Spring' (Barbican box office: 0171-638 8891)