Edinburgh Festival: International Festival

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Verdi Requiem

Usher Hall (0131-473 2000)

MUSICIANS LOVE a conductor who gives a strong lead when it's needed, and doesn't mess around when not required. Perhaps that was why this performance of the Verdi Requiem was so good. Myung-Whun Chung stood, before the beginning, for quite a while, absorbing the atmosphere. Then he lifted his arms very, very slowly and made the slightest hint of a gesture. And magically, mysteriously, a ghost of orchestral tone appeared from afar.

But Chung had a dashing, punching movement for the beginning of the Dies Irae, the music that propelled this work all over Europe and made Verdi's fortune. The orchestra responded with a flash of lightning, and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus sent up a massive wall of sound, threatening to bring down the frail ceiling of the Usher Hall. At last, this fine choir had something to get its teeth into; at this year's opening concert they appeared gross and clumsy. But the Verdi suits a big group, and the singers roared with delight.

This was how it started, but the promise of magnificence was not entirely fulfilled. The soprano, Amanda Roocroft, is stupendous, of course, but she was not exactly at her best. She spread creamy tone into every interstice of the ensembles, and lit a fiery glow of brilliance at the top of the big choral textures. But the voice soon tired and was not equal to the high soft notes of the conclusion.

The other soloists, likewise, did not redeem their promise. Eric Halfvarson deployed a dark, slightly nervous bass in the Mors stupebit, giving the right grave and priestly impression. But for some reason this voice, too, started to buckle and lose the edge of the intonation; perhaps Chung was asking too much, taking too many risks. Only the tenor, Ramon Vargas, was consistently thrilling to the very end. This is an endearing, boyish, thoroughly operatic voice, intense yet buoyant in the Ingemisco, ecstatic in the high mezza voce of the Hostias.

There was something more domestic and charming in the common-sense style of mezzo Jane Irwin. She offered forthright confidences in a soft and lyric tone, apparently unmoved by the terrible judgements of the Liber scriptus ("no sin shall go unpunished"), but preaching a more sombre message in the Lacrymosa, where the notes lay lower down.

It cannot be said that the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra left a strong mark. It accepted Chung's strong leads, it is true, but proved unable to glow, shine, blaze. Its principals (a drab clarinet, a penny-plain flute) had little personality, and the violin solo was played like a Kreutzer study. This inspired conductor, and these very fine soloists, deserved something better. If it had been an opera, which this work very nearly is, you would say it will be better later in the run. In the circumstances, you have to conclude that this performance was good, very good, so good it's a wonder it wasn't better.