Viva Verdi! A searing start to the CBSO’s new season

CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★

The first night of the CBSO’s new season was a triumphant combination of change and continuity. It’s the first for chief conductor and artistic advisor Kazuki Yamada and chief executive Emma Stanning but the 50th season for the brilliant CBSO Choir and the 40th for their choral director Simon Halsey. Verdi’s Requiem demands team-work of the highest order from orchestra, choir and the quartet of solo singers; one weak link and the musical chain snaps. The amazingly ebullient Kazuki Yamada ensured it was adamantine in strength. Not so much a conductor as multi-tasking choreographer, cheerleader and all-round enthusiasm-inducer. After the Requiem’s hushed start, all sighs, murmurings and string sussurrations, Verdi blazed forth with the ‘Dies Irae’. The Day of Judgement will hold no surprises for anyone who saw this performance as the orchestra roared and wailed – thunderous timpani and brass including the bass trombone and rarely-heard cimbasso – the 150-strong chorus berated us with the terrifying vision of a world dissolving in glowing ashes. There was Yamada like an infernal ringmaster unleashing the dogs of war, turning round on the podium to urge the quartet of offstage trumpets for more vehemence. Listeners to the Radio 3 broadcast will miss out on the enveloping surround-sound.

Verdi gave implicit guidance on the type of singers needed for the four soloists, by drawing on the casts of early performances of his recent opera ‘Aida’. They need to be a credible Aida, her arch-rival Amneris, heroic warrior Radames and implacable high priest Ramfis.Evelina Dobračeva (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Jose Simerilla Romero (tenor) and Ashley Riches (bass-baritone) were well capable of doing that as heard in the ‘Kyrie eleison’ as the solo vocalists introduced themselves in turn. The handsome Argentine Romero looks and sounds like a Verdian hero, an Italianate lyric tenor with a hint of steel, floating high and unforced in the mellifluous pleading “Ingemisco”. Ashley Riches was firm and noble – as he was in the CBSO’s recent “Gerontius – only in “Mors stupebit” did I feel he was too restrained emotionally not expressing the necessary awe as “Death and Nature shall stand amazed”. The great Boris Christoff sang it as if stupefied, in exactly the right way. Karen Cargill was the model of vocal surety and authority both in her solos and the crucial duets with Dobračeva. Verdi holds back the soprano’s star turn until the concluding “Libera me, Domine” (Deliver me, Lord) as Dobračeva pleaded for all humanity, her high C soaring majestically up to heaven. The CBSO Choir under Halsey was as immaculate and versatile as always from subdued to stentorian and agile in Verdi’s complex eight-part ‘Sanctus’ fugue.

Norman Stinchcombe

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