Hexham Abbey – 12 May 2018
Nobody who sat through their magnificent performance of Verdi’s Requiem on Saturday could doubt that the Hexham Orpheus Choir under Mark Edwards’ clear and precise direction has become a very good choir indeed. What was particularly impressive in this performance was the choir’s grasp of the Requiem’s dynamics, both rhythmically—Mark Edwards commands a very tight ship, and in terms of volume—the Dies Irae was wonderfully wrathful, the Requiem was sung with a fine sense of an eternal restful whisper.
Of course the choir was privileged to be working with excellent soloists and an outstanding orchestra but Hexham itself offered something too: the Abbey. There is nothing quite like hearing a requiem mass in a church rather than a concert hall and, indeed, for many in the audience for this performance it was best experienced in nave seats, without sight of the musicians. The music seemed to be part of the memories of the Abbey itself, and the concert’s lighting was subtle enough to frame the event wherever one sat.
The result was a performance of such authority as to hear familiar music afresh and to think about it in new ways. Why is this Requiem always described as ‘operatic’? Is this just because it was written by Verdi and the only other Verdi music we know is opera? The Orpheus performance suggested another answer. The Requiem is most operatic, not in the most dramatic moments, but in the most human ones. Verdi writes most movingly about the human expression of anger, tenderness and loss involved in grief rather than about the essentially unknowable qualities of God’s wrath and love. The music without the words would not be heard as ‘religious’ music. The music with the words, sung like this, is an uplifting celebration of our humanity.