Sunday, 21 July 2013

Verdi at the Proms

Royal Albert Hall
20 July 2013 

Verdi's Libera Me from the unperformed Rossini Mass (starts at 4:34)

A celebration for connoisseurs, but only rarely showing the composer at his best.

Verdi’s bicentenary is hardly noticed at the Proms, whereas Wagner’s is being celebrated at extreme length and cost. I would much rather this than the other way round, but still, one concert devoted to Verdi, and mostly obscure minor works at that, is not doing the great dramatist any sort of justice.

The first piece we heard isn’t even Verdi, but rather a string arrangement, or enlargement, of his string quartet. As a quartet, the piece may be a curiosity; in this distorted form it is merely tedious.

A late, occasional piece, the Ave Maria for soprano and orchestra, made a useful complement with the equally late Ave Maria in the slightly more familiar Four Sacred Pieces. Likewise the original version of the Requiem’s thrilling Libera Me linked closely with the Te Deum in the four pieces.

I was struck by two consistent approaches Verdi has in his overtly Christian music. On the one hand, through the Virgin, his sopranos pray for support, though typically in vain, at least in the staged dramas.

On the other, he presents God, or his believers, in the most fearsome and unyielding Old Testament style. This reaches a peak with the Dies Irae section of the Libera Me and the Requiem, but can be found also in the Te Deum, where the creator of this frightening world is appropriately presented as worthy of awe and terror.

Verdi was agnostic, but the programme notes are greatly undervaluing him by placing him in the same tradition as Brahms and Vaughan Williams. This concert forcefully confirmed that Verdi entered the beliefs of Christians with a dramatist’s skill, and presented two important aspects of them with his customary straightforward brilliance.

For Verdi, Christianity is about recognising that the horrors of the world are caused by God, perhaps justly (though perhaps not), and then about desperately hoping to supplicate that God, typically through the human closest to him, the Virgin.

Depending on preference, this music both supports and critiques the beliefs of Christians, and no other composer has done this so well. I cannot comprehend that Christians continue to find succour in Verdi’s religious works, but this in itself is the highest praise of this composer, who ought to be as controversial as his exact contemporary, Wagner.

Performances were excellent, and giving us an opportunity to explore this composer’s beliefs is priceless.

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