Classical: Verdi Requiem Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
Franz Welser-Most will doubtless have seen the irony in stepping down as music director of the London Philharmonic with a Requiem. His critics here have long since had him dead and buried. But there is an old theatrical adage that says "Always leave them wanting more". And - surprise, surprise - I do believe he has.

Sunday's performance of the Verdi Requiem was in many ways typical of him. But the "Prussian" streak - keen, precise lines, minimal rubato - which had so efficiently smartened up his act at the expense of a broader and more enduring freedom, has of late been showing signs of mellowing. Put simply, Welser-Most seems to be finding the balance within himself, the inner freedom. He is controlled but accommodating, purposeful but far-seeing. His Verdi was neither the "opera in ecclesiastical garb" that Von Bulow complained of nor some sacred relic wheeled out for our pious gratification - but something vital, alive, here and now.

And so, with the opening bars, our experience was of something not quite heard, not quite happening, the hush, the hum of expectation - muted cellos like old voices inside our heads, opening the subconscious to contemplation, reflection, prayer - but with a tension in the line, an underlying pulse, to give it all shape, movement. With the first tutti, "Te decet hymnus", Welser-Most's clean, lean, articulate rhythmic sense ensured a bright, uncumbersome sound from the London Philharmonic Choir. The "Dies Irae" released furious nervous energy, an element of hyperventilation into the drama. There was plenty of that - drama as opposed to overt theatricality.

Perhaps a little more "operatic" licence might have opened up certain aspects of the musical narrative. To give one example, the suspenseful string tremolando preceding the final "Amen" of the "Dies Irae": now there's a moment of extraordinary stasis, a moment in which a little discreet tenuto can stop time, can reach for something eternal. But that is not Welser-Most's way. Everything is through-phrased, fluid, songful, and in that he is infallibly musical. Yet there was room for manoeuvre here, room for his four solo voices to find a deeper, a more expressive, truth.

They had all been chosen with care. Which, of course, is no guarantee of success. The demands of this piece are far too great for success ever to be a certainty. Even so, the blend was good. John Tomlinson's weathered bass was not always the equal of his imagination, certain phrasings, dynamic shadings not as soundly or as subtly voiced as we might have hoped. His chilling repetitions of the word "Mors" in the aria "Mors stupebit" - questing apprehension progressing to hoarse whisper - brought a touch of Wotan to the drama. Vincenzo La Scola, the tenor, was authentic of timbre and wholly reliable, both in solo and ensemble, but without those personal turns of phrase that can make the part so special. With Linda Finnie, the mezzo, it's all personal: this lady sings, body and soul, with every fibre of her being, and if the voice itself is a little the worse for wear, I've not heard it - or her - quite so responsive to textual and musical nuance in ages. Terrific. And she melded so well with the soprano, the spectacular Alessandra Marc.

You leave - or should leave - every performance of the Verdi Requiem with the sound of the soprano in your head and heart. And what a fabulous sound this was - double-cream throughout its compass. To hear those long, grateful phrases re-created in the singing of them, free-ranging, amply turned and yet seeming to float on the breath, is as much as one can ask of any singer in this piece. So the pitching slipped away from her in the treacherous opening of the "Libera me", so the infamous B flat was somewhat less than sublime in the central a cappella. Her defiant response was a sensational top C to crown the climactic fugue. One last plea for deliverance. Welser-Most has been delivered from his London critics. But are they now having second thoughts?

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