The orchestra is ready. The audience is still. He glances up at the angels holding golden trumpets on the top of the organ. Raises the baton and wakes the sound.
What follows is a voyage through pathos and despair, not a landscape for the small-hearted. Before it ends, this requiem will shake your doubts, rattle your certainties, quicken your pulse. And it starts so softly. Like dying breaths. Like lifting mists.
In the Dies Irae, the choir builds and clings to an anguished chord as an avalanche of strings pours down the aisles. Each stomp of the bass drum is a blow to the viscera. The trumpets’ alarm is insistent. Whatever your beliefs, if this doesn’t terrify you, you are beyond salvation.
A whispered urgency in the choir points towards a solo trumpet. The hunt begins: the Tuba Mirum. Trumpets upon trumpets call out from side chapels, from hidden corners, from the angels themselves. The impossible trumpets are joined by full orchestral horns and you drown in a nave flooded with velvet brass.
The requiem rises just like the fan-vaulted ceiling. This chapel pushes the limits of algebra and architecture to the edges of reason, to the outlands of grace and beauty. A few degrees less daring, a few breadths thicker and the walls become earthly, dimmed by sturdy compromise. A few degrees more daring, a few centimetres thinner and the glorious façade crumbles on the heads of believers below. Creation walks a tightrope between the catastrophic and the divine.
Yet despite the stunning surroundings, the Lacrymosa makes you close your eyes to hold back tears. How can such weeping wend such beauty?
Sanctus is exuberance, is sunlight through stained glass windows, is uncontained joy in the face of unrelenting finality. These are the angels that sing of glory, glory that rises from a crucible which burns away anger, shame and fear. Triumphant brass, sparkling strings, mellifluous winds. Three minutes of redemption promising an eternity worth living for.
Ninety transformative, soul-stretching, heart-wrenching minutes later, as peace descends on a fading C-major chord, he glances up, once again, at the angels. Lowers the baton.
Then, that silence. Inverse of sound. That space after the baton is down and before applause breaks the air. Nobody breathes; nobody moves; hearts and clocks stop, veering on infinity. Epiphanies crystallise. Lifetimes condense. Spirit is stretched to the thinnest threads of glass. We perch on a precipice of exultation, sustaining the extremes of terror and tenderness.
The moment passes.
Ovation splinters the atmosphere. We collapse with relief.
Each hyperlink goes directly to a clip of the relevant section of the Verdi Requiem. The recording is Herbert Von Karajan conducting the Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala in Milan, 1967, Soloists include Leontyne Price and Luciano Pavarotti. The recording of the Requiem that was my soundtrack for the first months of 2011 is Antonio Pappano conducting his Roman Chorus and the Orchestra of Santa Cecilia, 2009. The performance remembered here was by the Cambridge Philharmonic Society and Amersfoort Choral Society, conducted by Timothy Redmond, at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge in March, 2011. This links to a stunning 360-degree virtual tour of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. If you couldn’t make the concert in March, you might listen to Von Karajan as you take a virtual tour…..