Glasgow Royal Concert Hall 

Keith Bruce 

five stars 

ALTHOUGH it is not unusual for composers to turn to religious works in their later years, the Requiem Giuseppe Verdi completed in the Indian Summer of his career as an opera composer is a unique work. 

The RSNO chose the 90-minute piece to end its season with a big statement, and in fact it made more than one.

It was the climax of the first season of the new director of the RSNO Chorus, Stephen Doughty, who had rehearsed a huge version of the choir, augmented by guest singers, including eight students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Add the international quartet of soloists - soprano Gabriela Scherer, mezzo Jennifer Johnston, tenor Peter Auty, and bass George Andguladze - and there were nearly 200 voices on stage, alongside a full-strength orchestra boosted by off-stage trumpets and tuba player John Whitener playing the exotic cimbasso.

The instrumentalists were also particularly remembering double bassist John Clark, who died last summer after more than 40 years with the orchestra. 

A details man, he would surely have enjoyed the difference this hall’s recent refurbishment has made to its acoustic, the nuances of Verdi’s orchestration more evident than they’d have been previously. 

The recurring Dies irae chorus that everyone knows - that mighty choir off the leash but never sounding forced and Simon Lowdon magisterial on the bass drum - was stupendous, but the quieter moments were just as impressive, from the sotto voce Requiem aeternam that opens the work to the equally poised Libera me that closes it. 

Verdi uses his vast forces very precisely, to hugely dramatic effect, and the Offertorio quartet had lovely muted first violins before the soprano soloist’s first entry and the big choral Sanctus a wonderful punchy contribution from the trombones. 

With both Scherer and Auty stepping into the front line late in the day, the quartet of soloists gelled astonishingly, the former combining well with mezzo Jennifer Johnston, who was on commanding form. The structure of the Lacrymosa that sits at the work’s halfway mark and interweaves all the vocal possibilities the composer has at hand has rarely been so exquisitely expressed. 

The continuing role of the man on the podium, RSNO Music Director Thomas Sondergard, deserves full credit for that. This is a Requiem full of drama, and because we see him only as an orchestral conductor, it is good to remember that, like Verdi, in his native Scandinavia Sondergard is very much a man of the theatre.