If there is such a thing as a "conductor's piece," Verdi's Requiem, his setting of the Roman Catholic funeral mass in memory of the poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni, is one of them.
As proof, consider the way record collectors talk. They speak of the "Leontyne Price 'Aida'" or the "Callas 'Norma.'" But it's the "[George] Solti Requiem" or the "[Riccardo] Muti Requiem." This means two things: first, that the singers can't carry the Requiem. If the conductor is weak, it doesn't matter how good the soloists — or, for that matter, the chorus singers — are.
It also means that a conductor needs to display a strong conception as he moves through this profoundly beautiful and moving drama of life, death and salvation. Verdi wasn't a churchgoer in his last years, but he felt these matters deeply: the fear of death and the hope for some kind of ultimate consolation at the end of life, an outcome about which he remained anything but certain.
Happily, the performance of the Requiem by the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall Friday night scored heavily on all counts. Here was an accomplished conductor — Roberto Abbado — leading an excellent, well-trained chorus — the Minnesota Chorale — and four first-rate soloists in a galvanizing account of this massive work, exploring its operatic scale and thrust while remaining attentive to the score's smallest details.
Abbado, a frequent guest of both this orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, where he is an Artistic Partner, chose brisk but persuasive tempos and maintained them consistently, so that the work didn't fragment into little sections, and he controlled with a firm hand the relationship of the various climaxes over the long span of the work. Abbado also sustained a wide dynamic range — the faint whisper from the strings and the chorus at the start, all the way to the hair-raising outbursts in the "Rex tremendae."
The soloists were a strong team, respectful of each other when singing together and always accurate and compelling in their solo moments. Julianna Di Giacomo, a luminous and powerful soprano, was close to ideal, whether leading climaxes or floating soft high notes, like the adroit, though slightly too loud, high B-flat in the "Libera me." German mezzo Anke Vondung was a perfect partner, her voice blending beautifully with Di Giacomo's and displaying immaculate high notes of her own. Bass Riccardo Zanellato brought just the right sense of awe to the "Mors stupebit" section, and Jean-Francois Borras provided resonant sound and elegant phrasing in the big tenor solo, "Ingemisco."
Add to this a precise, spirited performance by the orchestra and the result was one of the most engaging concerts of the season. Live performances of the Requiem are seldom this good.
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis writer