The Bach Choir. Verdi: Requiem. Richard Blackford's orchestration for two pianos, organ and percussion. Conducted by David Hill. © 2023 Wyastone Estate Limited

CD Spotlight

A De-orchestration?

KEITH BRAMICH listens to Richard Blackford's new version of Verdi's Messa da Requiem

'... Richard Blackford is a respected and experienced composer, and this is no mere thinning of the texture ...'


The popular and frequently performed Messa da Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) was first heard in Milan on 22 May 1874 - the first anniversary of the death of Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni, one of Verdi's heroes. Verdi's intensely operatic work is usually performed by large choirs in concert halls rather than liturgically, but this new arrangement by English composer Richard Blackford (born 1954), at the request of Bach Choir conductor David Hill, may be a game changer.

I suspect that my friend, the late Giuseppe Pennisi, had realised this, because he asked to review this recording a couple of months ago. I know that Giuseppe received the CD in Rome, but I'm not sure whether he was able to listen to it. Sadly, he couldn't share his thoughts about it with us, so, as we think about what might have been, I'm dedicating my relatively feeble words here to Giuseppe's memory.

Most of us are very familiar with Verdi's Requiem. As a youth I knew it from recordings and broadcasts. When as a young man I joined a large choir to perform it in London's Royal Albert Hall, I particularly remember conductor Charles Farncombe's plea that the tenors and basses should barely whisper the opening word 'Requiem', which is then answered in similar fashion by the sopranos and altos, before all the choral voices sing 'Requiem aeternam' together.

Listen — Verdi, arranged Blackford: Requiem (Messa da Requiem)
(NI 6437 track 1, 0:01-0:49) ℗ 2023 Wyastone Estate Limited :

When I first heard Blackford's new version, with, at the very opening, only church organ, the sound itself was a huge shock, partly because of the change in timbre, but also because of the feeling - the granularity, if you like - of one person performing what I expected to hear from a large body of players.

Blackford's Verdi Requiem is accompanied by organ - here Philip Scriven at the organ of Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square, London - plus two pianists (Iain Farrington and Anna Tilbrook) and a single percussionist Peter Fry, who switches dynamically between timpani and bass drum - so just four instrumentalists in total. The significance is that this version can be performed by very much smaller forces, in smaller venues and at less expense, opening up performance possibilities to smaller (and poorer) choral groups.

Listen — Verdi, arranged Blackford: Dies Irae (Messa da Requiem)
(NI 6437 track 2, 0:00-0:41) ℗ 2023 Wyastone Estate Limited :

In one sense, of course, this is a 'de-orchestration', removing the large orchestral forces of Verdi's version, which includes, for example, four bassoons, four horns, eight trumpets, three trombones and an ophicleide, as well as a large body of string players. But Richard Blackford is a respected and experienced composer, and this is no mere thinning of the texture to a keyboard reduction.

Listen — Verdi, arranged Blackford: Ingemisco (Messa da Requiem)
(NI 6437 track 8, 1:50-2:49) ℗ 2023 Wyastone Estate Limited :

As Blackford explains, the organ, with its large choice of registration, takes a great range of orchestral colours, and this provides contrast to the more brittle, brilliant sound of the pianos and percussion. Six hands at three keyboards plus two feet at a pedal board also allow Verdi's contrapuntal writing to remain.

Listen — Verdi, arranged Blackford: Sanctus (Messa da Requiem)
(NI 6437 track 12, 0:00-0:48) ℗ 2023 Wyastone Estate Limited :

There are four expert vocal soloists on this recording. Soprano Helena Dix is spine-tingling in the Libera me, and mezzo Catherine Carby is utterly uncompromising in her Liber Scriptus solo. Tenor Luis Gomes rides the many and various emotions in Ingemisco, and there's no messing with bass Jihoon Kim when he takes on the role of the operatic bad-guy in Confutatis. At that rare moment when they all sing together, unaccompanied, this is pure unarranged Verdi.

Listen — Verdi, arranged Blackford: Domine Jesu (Messa da Requiem)
(NI 6437 track 11, 8:36-9:24) ℗ 2023 Wyastone Estate Limited :

I'm finding that my ears and brain are adjusting to Richard Blackford's new sound world remarkably quickly, helped by the expert forces and beautifully tight and clear diction of The Bach Choir, whose vowels only occasionally sound slightly too English. Holding everything together is conductor (and commissioner of this inspiring and practical new arrangement), David Hill.

Listen — Verdi, arranged Blackford: Libera Me (Messa da Requiem)
(NI 6437 track 15, 12:22-13:17) ℗ 2023 Wyastone Estate Limited :

Let's leave the last words to the late Giuseppe Pennisi:

What does it mean to give a Catholic musical reading to a composition that has been considered a great secular melodrama, even if written on a religious text in Latin? This is felt, in the first place, from the initial introduction and the ending. The entrance of the choir is pianissimo, a sign of the recollection essential to understand the work. In the finale, after the Libera me, there is Domine da morte aeternam - a search for eternal peace.

This review copyright © 27 May 2023 Keith Bramich,
London, UK



 << Home              Next review >>