Italian warmth in Welsh winter

by
15 December 2017

Garry Humphreys hears Verdi and Respighi

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SIGHTINGS of Verdi’s Quattro Pezzi Sacri (Four Sacred Pieces) are rare in the schedules of British choirs, amateur and professional, perhaps for the demands they make on the singers.

An opportunity afforded itself recently at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, in a concert of Italian music given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and its excellent chorus, with the Chinese principal guest conductor of the orchestra, Xian Zhang, in charge. Of the four sections, two are unaccompanied, but evidently held few fears for the singers, trained as they are by the vastly experienced Adrian Partington, otherwise director of music at Gloucester Cathedral and an indisputably safe pair of hands.

The four pieces were written at different times between 1887 and 1897, towards the end of Verdi’s career (he died, aged 88, in 1901), and it seems that he was ambivalent about their public performance — Malcolm Hayes in his programme note suggests that Verdi saw them as “a kind of private testament, whose actual performance was neither necessary nor intended”.

Indeed, the opening “Ave Maria”, he declared, was merely a technical exercise, based on a so-called “scala enigmatica” published by Adolfo Crescentini in 1888 with the challenge for composers to harmonise it. Verdi wondered why he should “be bothered with this nonsense”, but then felt it could lend itself to a setting of Ave Maria. The unconventional material resulted in a work of unusually concentrated expression, and it was first performed in 1895.

The scale, with its augmented and diminished intervals, is sung in turn by altos, sopranos, and then tenors, with the other voices in harmony around them, sung with true intonation and great expressiveness by the unaccompanied Welsh chorus, which benefits from the inclusion of students from Cardiff University and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama among its ranks.

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“Stabat Mater” — the last work Verdi wrote — follows, joined by the orchestra (larger in fact than Verdi prescribed for his Requiem), and “Laudi alla Vergine Maria” (again unaccompanied), both inspired by Palestrina; but the climax of the Pieces is the “Te Deum”, which Verdi felt had in the past been misinterpreted musically.

The opening is triumphant, yes, but “towards the middle the colour and the expression change” and at the end is “a prayer . . . moving, sad to the point of terror. . . All this has nothing to do with victories and coronations.” The unnamed soprano soloist from the choir at the end of the “Te Deum” (perhaps from the Royal Welsh College of Music?) is to be commended for her pure tone and fearless, ringing top Bs.

The Four Sacred Pieces were preceded by the overture to La Forza del Destino, and the second half of the concert began with a group of arias including “La vergine degli angeli”, which closes Act II of that opera, when Leonora asks for the Virgin Mary’s blessing as she enters into a solitary existence as a hermit in a cave outside a religious community. Here she was joined by the men’s voices of the BBC National Chorus of Wales, notable for their rich and even tone — I can’t believe they did not include some professional singers — and the tenors were thrillingly Italianate in the climaxes.

There were also arias from Il Trovatore and La Traviata and the “Ave Maria” from Otello. They were sung most idiomatically by the Italian soprano Chiara Taigi, in white for Desdemona and Leonora (Forza), then red for Leonora (Trovatore) and Violetta. Taigi sang in character, no doubt with the experience of stage performances behind her, putting across the pathos and the drama, as required, and acknowledging the applause in the authentic Italian manner, for all of which (and particularly her dazzling fioritura, her embellishment of the melodic lines) she received an enthusiastic reception.

The concert ended with Pini di Roma (The Pines of Rome), the second of three symphonic poems about Rome by Ottorino Respighi (the others are The Fountains of Rome and Roman Festivals), a magnificent showpiece for orchestra including extra brass, percussion, orchestral piano and organ — and was dispatched with aplomb, if not the most exciting performance I have heard, being somewhat lacking in focus and authority. There was splendid playing from the orchestra, however, here and elsewhere in the programme. If I have to single out one player, it is the principal cellist, Alice Neary, whose solo playing here and in one of the arias was a joy to hear. The extraordinary acoustical clarity of St David’s Hall is its greatest asset.

This concert is to be broadcast in the BBC Radio 3 series, Afternoon Concert, date to be announced. There were many empty spaces in the hall. Why? Perhaps the works were unfamiliar? But I am inclined to think that high seat prices are the reason. If these could be reduced by a couple of notches, more people would come — and perhaps be keen to come again — and if the overall income from ticket sales does not immediately increase over all, the additional income from programme sales, refreshments, etc., surely will.

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