Hertford Choral Society performed Verdi Requiem on Saturday 30th March 2019 at All Saints' Church, Hertford. Soloists were: Fiona Hammacott (soprano),  Margaret McDonald (contralto), Tom Raskin (tenor), Alan Fairs (bass), accompanied by the Chameleon Arts Orchestra. Musical Director and Conductor was Derek Harrison.

There can be no doubt that a performance of Verdi’s Requiem is a major undertaking. Not only do you need to bring together large choral and orchestral forces, but you also need four highly capable soloists who can rise to the technical and musical demands Verdi places on them. All these performers will need to immerse themselves in the musical style of late 19th century Italian opera of which Verdi was the supreme master, and through this be capable of expressing the music in the way Verdi intended.

The Hertford Choral Society’s performance rose to that challenge with aplomb. Everything was secure from the off, and it wasn’t long before I was confident that I was going to enjoy the evening immensely. The hushed opening, the a-cappella Te decet hymnus (ending perfectly in pitch), the entry of the soloists for the Kyrie were all executed with precision and confidence and sounded thrilling. This, relatively subdued, opening is followed by two huge noisy movements – the famous Dies Irae and the Tuba Mirum.

When a big orchestra is being encouraged by Verdi’s orchestration and dynamics to really open up it can, of course, be a challenge for any but the largest choir to be heard. It is true that the singers are helped by Verdi’s writing, and apart from, perhaps, the start of the Tuba Mirum (where all the brass are ‘tutta forza’), the choral element in this performance was fully present, and always the effect was powerful and exciting. The choir, indeed, displayed a great deal of stamina, maintaining their intensity of performance right through to the end. The soloists, of course, are given a key role and all four soloists here were excellent, going beyond the sometimes extreme technical demands in Verdi’s score to deliver powerful and emotive performances. In particular, the mezzo-soprano Margaret McDonald was, I thought, outstanding.

The choir sang with highly commendable fidelity to the score – their dynamics, Italianate vowels, and phrasing being well controlled throughout. Sensibly, when Verdi asks for extremely quiet dynamics (e.g. pppp) this was interpreted not as a barely audible whisper but as a positively withheld but still supported sound, which communicates the musical tension perfectly. Other work on vocal technique (perhaps partly from their workshop day) was also in evidence, the choir producing a full, smooth tone and accurate intonation. In some of the faster fugal passages (the opening of the Sanctus and in the Libera Me) we could, perhaps, have had more incisive and accurate rhythms – some of the detail was getting muddied – however the build ups to the climaxes were always tremendous.

The conductor, Derek Harrison, is not one for emoting passionately with the music, in the style of a theatrical Italian maestro. His leadership was, rather, clear and precise, giving the performance shape and direction. Verdi may be the archetypal romantic, but his large-scale works would not have stood the test of time had they not also been structured with care and precision. Derek showed great understanding of this and as a result the performance was compelling, drawing us in and propelling us forward. We can do without the theatrics; it is the musical integrity that counts!

This was an uplifting and moving performance, which did full justice to Verdi’s masterpiece.

Oliver Hitch