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Since his sudden departure from La Scala, Milan, in 2005, Riccardo Muti must have had some blank pages in his diary. The Philharmonia Orchestra has been one of the beneficiaries of the changes to his schedule and it is good to see Muti making a reappearance in London, where he spent a fruitful decade in the 1970s.
Before they set out on tour together to Hungary and Spain, the Philharmonia provided Muti with a glamorous send-off – a performance of Verdi’s Requiem in the auspicious setting of Westminster Cathedral, marking the 50th anniversary of the Philharmonia Chorus and in the presence of the orchestra’s patron, the Prince of Wales.
Muti gave the impression of a man who was master of all he surveyed. His performances of the Requiem have always been conceived in the world of the living – a passionate, red-blooded response to an almost operatic score – but what impressed here was the ebb and flow of emotion that brought spontaneity to even the most formal passages.
As always in religious venues, Westminster Cathedral became a performer in its own right, adding overtones and echoes that Verdi never imagined. But Muti had tamed the building too, as far as he could: by waiting for the echo of hellfire trumpets and drums to clear from the far corners of the cathedral he was able to create a few moments where an unearthly peace reigned. Some careful balancing in rehearsal also meant that the Philharmonia Chorus came over splendidly at its own birthday jamboree.
Among the soloists there was one great voice, which was the mezzo of Olga Borodina, less flexible than in her youth, but still a glorious and proud sound. Giuseppe Sabbatini’s plangent tenor was at his best when hushed reverence was required and Petri Lindroos made a firm bass. The young Russian soprano Tatiana Serjan is a Muti find and she worked overtime to fulfil his wishes, as he signalled urgent instructions to her on virtually every note and syllable, all but singing the role for her. No question here who was in charge.
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