Cranleigh School Chapel Choir joined forces again with the Cranleigh Village Choral Society to perform Verdi’s Requiem on Sunday 20th March in Speech Hall. This huge choir had been clearly inspired as well as well-drilled in three months of rehearsal and the tuning and musical tension in the hushed opening set the tone for the whole evening. Conductor Marcus Pashley’s love of opera, combined with his great experience as a choral conductor, were the ideal credentials to interpret this much-loved work and his shaping of phrases and incisive punch at key moments made for a truly memorable interpretation.
These concerts have been blessed before with world-famous vocal soloists but rarely, if ever, with four such accomplished singers in the one evening. Meeta Raval, soprano, is a rising star whose final solo at the end of the ‘Libera Me’ was a highlight. Kathryn Harries has a very distinguished career on such operatic stages as Covent Garden and the Met in New York, and Cranleigh School pupils are immensely fortunate to have her as one of our vocal studies coaches. Her experience in refining her rich mezzo-soprano tone to the acoustics and in scrupulously observing the score’s dynamics was used to great effect at the beginning of the ‘Lacrimosa’ and the Lux Aeterna’ sections. Tenor Adrian Thompson also sings the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions and this seemed relevant to his Verdi singing here: avoiding any crude operatic sobs in the voice and reminding us that this is indeed a setting of a Catholic Mass for the Dead. His very first word and notes (‘Hostias’) were magical and the clarity of his diction was exceptional; one could hear why he is also in demand as Gerontius. Bass Brindley Sherratt seemed thoroughly to enjoy returning to the roots of a local Choral Society, a great British tradition that has led to one conductor making a weekly commute from Bologna to conduct his Preston choir. Mr Sherratt has recently sung under stars such as Gergiev, Rattle and Boulez, but was just as willing to give his best preparation and musicianship to this one-off local ‘gig’: indeed, he sang his ‘Confutatis’ solo with score closed. The blending of the four voices was remarkable, given that only one rehearsal is affordable for such a concert, and the quartet in the ‘Offertorio’ was sublime.
The Merriman Concert Orchestra was led by Kevin Weaver, whose solo after the interval led us back into the ethereal heavenliness that Verdi counterpoints with his apocalyptic glimpses into the mouth of hell. The most famous orchestral moment in the piece is the bass drum in the ‘Dies Irae’ and this was given its full impact, along with superb timpani playing, leading me to compare Marcus Pashley’s crisp attack here with the Verdi expert Riccardo Muti. There were some especially fruity contributions from the bassoons and the pleading oboe in the ‘Ingemisco’ certainly deserved a place among the sheep rather than the goats. The off-stage brass added to the powerful impact of the ‘Dies Irae’ and the relatively compact hall’s acoustics, compared with the scale of the music, added to the sense of musical immediacy that only a live performance can add.
The audience were lucky indeed not to have to travel to London for such an evening, but even luckier were the young singers who were performing the work for the first time: surely it will be a treasured memory for them of their schooldays. For some of the older singers this was the fourth Verdi Requiem at Cranleigh in the last thirty years and, having in the last three found myself in all sorts of difficulties in some of the eight-part fugal sections, I cannot commend highly enough the sheer accuracy and choral attack in the singing. The blend of fresh voices and the experienced score-reading of our friends from the Choral Society made a powerful combination.
Final credit then to Marcus Pashley: learning such a multi-lined score is a mammoth task in itself and some professional conductors would need several rehearsals to achieve what Marcus gave us from one afternoon of full rehearsal.
As a footnote, the work’s spiritual dimension as a Requiem, not just a concert work, was poignantly underlined by the tribute in the programme to Margaret MacFarlane, who joined the Village Choral Society in 1946 and was their Secretary for 32 years, ending as Honorary President. She was born in 1911, just ten years after Verdi died, and passed away a fortnight before this performance, just two weeks short of her 100th birthday.