Verdi’s Requiem

In celebrating 60 years of fine music-making since its foundation, Tonbridge Philharmonic Society chose to present a special performance of Verdi’s Requiem in the magnificent setting of Tonbridge School Chapel. Verdi’s masterpiece is acknowledged to be an Everest in the choral and orchestral repertoire, demanding huge resources in scale and talent from singers and players alike. Climbing Everest is almost common-place today but the crevasses and glaciers are as dangerous as ever. Likewise with Verdi’s great work: woe betide the soloist, choral singer or orchestral player whose preparation has been less than meticulous. No such worries for Tonbridge Philharmonic Society. Under conductor Robin Morrish’s superbly controlled direction chorus, orchestra and soloists delivered an outstanding performance.

Verdi’s vision of the Day of Judgement in the Dies Irae is one of the most awe inspiring moments in all music and here Robin Morrish unleashed his forces to truly terrifying effect, the chorus easily surmounting the orchestral sound, trumpet fanfares blazing from the organ loft, banshee wails from the piccolo and all underpinned by the (almost literally) stunning percussion section. Tonbridge Philharmonic Society remains rare amongst societies in that it boasts both a chorus and orchestra. Sometimes the chorus can seem to be the lesser partner and problems with balance in this work are not unusual. This was not the case with the Philharmonic’s performance: the chorus sang with immense discipline and control – powerful when needed (the basses’ first Rex tremendae was astonishing!) but also delivering the text in the pianissimo opening to the Libera Me with absolute clarity and conviction.

Verdi’s Requiem is the most operatic of sacred works and makes enormous demands on the soloists. For this special performance the Philharmonic offered a star team. Maureen Brathwaite (soprano) and Susan Legg (mezzo-soprano) were a perfectly matched pair, whose superb ensemble and tuning in the Recordare produced one of the most beautiful moments of the evening, while Jonathan Gunthorpe presented his bass solos with practised authority. The young tenor Tuomas Katajala has an astonishing voice, truly operatic in focus and power and perfect for Verdi’s great arias. He gave a thrilling performance in his solo Ingemisco but was perhaps less successful in the ensemble passages. All solo quartets find these quieter and sometimes unaccompanied sections in the Requiem challenging and one such passage gave the only unsteady moment of the evening, immediately following the interval. (Does one need an interval in this piece? I suppose the audience does, if only to stretch its legs, but it’s all too easy for the tension to be lost and concentration to dissipate.) But this was only a momentary lapse and things were soon back on track, thanks to the total professionalism of the orchestral leader, Penelope Howard, who was clearly a tower of strength throughout.

The orchestral forces demanded by the Verdi Requiem are colossal but the Philharmonic was well up to the task, with warmly rich strings, beautifully articulated wind playing and impressive brass and percussion. This was indeed a special evening and a worthy start to Tonbridge Philharmonic Society’s anniversary season. With a capacity audience of well over 500 and some disappointed people turned away at the door, Verdi’s Everest was scaled, not just successfully, but triumphantly!

Charles Vignoles.