Teodor Currentzis’ debut with Verdi’s Requiem

30 Nov 2019

Berliner Philharmoniker
Teodor Currentzis

musicAeterna Choir

  • Giuseppe Verdi
    Messa da Requiem (100 min.)

    Zarina Abaeva soprano, Annalisa Stroppa mezzo-soprano, Sergej Romanowsky tenor, Evgeny Stavinsky bass, musicAeterna Choir

  • free

    Teodor Currentzis in conversation with Sarah Willis (22 min.)

“He stages the piece as a psychological thriller,” said a review by NDR following a performance by Teodor Currentzis of Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem. In the spring of 2019, the Greek conductor and his ensemble musicAeterna toured Europe, delighting audiences with their intense, captivating and moving interpretation of Verdi’s funeral mass. Currentzis, who has already been invited twice by the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation to present musicAeterna in the Chamber Music Hall and the Philharmonie, now makes his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Verdi’s requiem is often referred to as the Italian composer’s “best opera”. Currentzis has a very different attitude: “It’s important to me: the Verdi Requiem is sacred, even holy, music. This has to do with God. When Verdi presents himself as an agnostic, he is misleading us,” says the conductor in an interview he gave during his Requiem tour.

The death in 1873 of the great Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni, who Verdi greatly admired and venerated, was the reason behind the piece’s creation. The last movement, “Libera me”, had already been composed by Verdi five years before: following the death of Gioacchino Rossini, he had called leading Italian composers to write a requiem-pasticcio for him together. Although all his colleagues followed his appeal and submitted their contributions, his initiative failed because of the faint-heartedness of the local authorities. Verdi later took the movement he composed and integrated it with modifications into the new work. Together with the apocalyptic “Dies irae”, the liturgical sequence of the dead, in which the composer evokes the turmoil of the Last Judgement with timpani and trumpets, the “Libera me” forms the musical cornerstones of the requiem. In it, Verdi describes the existential trauma of a person in the face of death. He deploys his entire experience as an opera composer and creates a musical and dramaturgically ingenious composition that guides the listener through many emotions: fear, terror, desperation, sadness, humility, hope for salvation ... Verdi focuses on contrasts: archaism and expression, liturgy and opera, contemplation and turmoil – creating a work full of power, intensity and drama. The sudden changes in dynamics, tempo, timbre and mood make Verdi’s mass for the dead one of the most challenging and at the same time most beautiful choral works of the 19th century.

“Eternal Death” and Human Hope

Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem

A mass for the dead, a musical requiem, must be heard in a church – and not in a secular temple of the Muses. That seemed to be an iron law for centuries. Other rules applied to Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, however. Although the premiere took place in a religious setting on 22 May 1874, namely at the Church of San Marco in Milan, three more performances followed only a few days later at Milan’s La Scala, an opera house! And, according to Verdi’s enemies, that was exactly where this work belonged. The celebrated conductor Hans von Bülow was one of Verdi’s leading critics. He was the source of the derogatory comment that Verdi’s Requiem was nothing but an “opera in ecclesiastical garb”. It is curious, however, that Bülow already expressed his notorious judgement one day before the premiere, without having heard a single note. His verdict caused an outrage, even among friends like Johannes Brahms, who responded with the words: “Bülow has made a fool of himself for all time; only a genius could write such a work.” Bülow’s choice of words was of course explained by the fact that, since he had already written 24 stage works, Verdi was regarded as the epitome of the Italian opera composer. He had not devoted himself to church music since his early years, nor was he known as a particularly devout individual. That he nevertheless composed such an important sacred work as his Messa da Requiem had to do with two deaths. The initial idea came when Gioacchino Rossini died on 13 November 1868. “A great name has disappeared from the world,” Verdi lamented at that time. “He was the glory of Italy.” As a musical tribute to Rossini, Verdi approached twelve colleagues and proposed that they compose a mass for the dead as a collaborative work – he himself wanted to contribute the last movement, the Libera me. Although the collective composition was completed in time for the first anniversary of Rossini’s death, the performance did not take place: it came to nothing because of small-mindedness, disputes over authority and financing.

Evocation of the Last Judgement

Then, however, another severe loss shocked Italy’s cultural scene. On 22 May 1873 the writer Alessandro Manzoni died, whom Verdi venerated almost like a god. “You are a saint, Don Alessandro,” he had once declared to the author of the novel The Betrothed. For this “saint” Verdi now took the manuscript of the Libera me out of the drawer and decided to compose the Requiem alone this time. Since the movement already contained a restatement of the Requiem aeternam(Eternal rest), the words with which the liturgy of a mass for the dead begins, the opening of his new work was already nearly finished. But even better, the Libera me also returns to the Dies irae (day of wrath), the evocation of the Last Judgement, which is heard beforehand in the Sequence. Thus, this section had already been completed as well. Verdi must have particularly liked it, since he made it a key moment in his Manzoni Requiem – he uses it four times, presenting people’s fear of hell with striking naturalism. Tutti blows in the entire orchestra, alternating with harsh cross accents in the bass drum, simulate thunderclaps; cries of terror in the chorus, piercing trills in the brass and flickering string figurations evoke the global conflagration. Verdi often makes the chorus literally tremble; he has it declaim, stammering and hesitating, as though the singers’ voices would break off immediately. And at the end, four offstage trumpets announce the Last Judgement, lending the scene spatial presence.

This powerful imagery is what makes Verdi’s Requiem unique. The opening, the Introit Requiem aeternamalready provides a perfect example. The music begins, barely audible, with a descending line in the muted cellos, then after seven bars the chorus enters and, in a whisper, begs for eternal rest: “Requiem”. In his mind’s eye, the listener sees the congregation of mourners, smells the incense, feels the grief of the relatives – and hopes with them that there is life after death. Verdi evokes this hope by modulating from minor to major at the words “Et lux perpetua luceat eis” (And may perpetual light shine upon them), actually giving off a ray of light of sorts. In passages like this, his music exudes a remarkable empathy, a humane character.

Of course, his Requiem also has very different moments, ruthless and harsh, reminiscent of the priest figures in his operas. Verdi’s clerics are nearly all disagreeable characters, like the misanthropic Fra Melitone in La forza del destino, the merciless Ramfis in Aida or the formidable Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo: this ossified representative of the clergy is 90 years old and blind – what a symbol! And these figures, who represent the threatening backdrop of the church, also appear in his Requiem, in a sense. Take, for example, the Rex tremendae majestatis, which invokes the “King of dreadful majesty”. Here the rigid church morality is expressed first in the guise of the basses of the chorus, who ward off the punitive God in fortissimo tones – the words are then repeated by the tenors, quavering and anxious. But then a single voice rings out from the host of frightened souls, imploring: “salva me, fons pietatis” (save me, O font of pity). The other soloists take up this plea for mercy until the cry resounds in the entire chorus. Voice by voice, the singers enter with their “save me, save me, save me”, ascending higher and higher, until the gates of heaven seem to open and Verdi’s music embraces us all.

An anticipation of eternal life

The austere, Gregorian-sounding Agnus Dei proves that Verdi was also a master of the old style. He begins this movement with the two soloists alone, soprano and mezzo-soprano, who intone the melody an octave apart, without orchestral accompaniment, like an Introit. The chorus takes up the phrase in a restatement of the theme, accompanied only by clarinets and bassoons. The theme is then repeated in a minor variant, again beginning with the soloists, this time with light instrumental support, then the chorus, now more opulently accompanied by the orchestra. During the third appeal to the “Lamb of God”, however, the soloists are embellished and almost caressed by three flutes. When the chorus finally joins in again, the full orchestra ascends to the greatest heights, as though on a ladder to heaven: music with a blissful quality which seems to take away the fear of death.

Despite the consolation that Verdi’s Messa da Requiem offers, he remained a sceptic. That is shown by the end of the work; Verdi does not conclude his mass for the dead with an affirming “Amen”: “So be it, so it is, so shall it be.” Nor are his last words devoted to eternal rest or eternal light but rather the urgent plea “Libera me, Domine, de morte aeternam”, (Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death). It is not a certainty of faith that Verdi proclaims at the close, but at most a glimmer of hope that perhaps everything might not be over after all.

Incidentally, Hans von Bülow, who was mentioned at the beginning, later profoundly regretted having criticized Verdi’s Requiem so harshly. He apologized in a letter to the composer in 1892: he had made a “gross journalistic blunder” about which he was bitterly ashamed. Bülow admitted that he had only recently heard the Requiem, and it had moved him to tears. To this day, millions of people all over the world share this feeling with him, regardless of whether they hear the Requiem in a concert hall or a church.

Susanne Stähr

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Teodor Currentzis, born in Athens in 1972, began studying conducting in his home town in 1987, then from 1994 to 1999, he continued his studies at the Rimsky-Korsakov St. Petersburg State Conservatory under Ilya Musin. He is the founder and music director of the ensemble musicAeterna and the musicAeterna choir. From 2011 to 2019, both ensembles were resident at the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre where Teodor Currentzis was artistic director. In July 2019, he stepped down from this position to concentrate fully on leading musicAeterna as an independent ensemble to new heights. With the beginning of the 2018/2019 season, Teodor Currentzis took up his position as chief conductor of the SWR Symphonieorchester. Highlights of his career include a residency at the Vienna Konzerthaus (2016/2017); a new production of Mozart’s opera La clemenza di Tito with Peter Sellars at the Salzburg Festival, where he presented a cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies on five sold-out evenings with musicAeterna in 2018; his debut at the BBC Proms with musicAeterna the same year; plus the performance of the opera The Passenger by Mieczysław Weinberg with the Wiener Symphoniker at the Bregenz Festival. In 2006, Teodor Currentzis launched the Territoria Modern Art Festival which quickly became the most prestigious music festival in Moscow. He has also curated the International Diaghilev Festival in Perm since 2012. Winner of the Musikfest Bremen Prize in 2019, the artist has been awarded the prestigious “Golden Mask” by the Russian theatre association seven times. In concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation, Teodor Currentzis last appeared at the beginning of May 2018, presenting works by Gustav Mahler together with musicAeterna. In the present concerts, he makes his debut conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Zarina Abaeva is from Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia, where she first studied under Nelly Khestanova. In 2011, the Russian soprano completed her training under Rusanna Lisitsian at the Gnessin State Musical College in Moscow. The winner of the All-Russian Nadezhda Obukhova Young Vocalists’ Competition and the Minsk International Christmas Singing Competition, she has been an ensemble member of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre since 2012. There, she caused a sensation particularly in the operas of Tchaikovsky: in the title role of Iolanta, as Tatiana in Eugene Onegin, as Maria in Mazeppa and in the role of Agnès Sorel in The Maid of Orleans. The repertoire of the singer, who has also been engaged at the Kolobov Novaya Opera Theatre of Moscow since 2019, also includes Micaëla in Bizet’s Carmen, Antonia in Offenbach’s Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Blanche in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, Nineta in Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges and the title roles in Puccini’s Suor Angelica, Madama Butterfly and Verdi’s Aida. In autumn 2017, Zarina Abaeva sang the role of Natasha in a concert performance of Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s opera Rusalka conducted by Mikhail Pletnev at the Russian National Orchestra’s Grand Festival. In addition, she made a guest appearance as Mimì in Puccini’s La Bohème at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden. In March 2019, she participated in a European tour with the instrumental and vocal ensemble musicAeterna under the baton of Theodor Currentzis, which included Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem on its programme. Zarina Abaeva is now performing for the first time in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation.

Sergey Romanovsky graduated in vocal studies from the Tchaikovsky Moscow State Conservatory and the Choral Academy of Moscow. The tenor, who is currently completing his studies under Olga Mironova and Dmitry Vdovin, won competitions at an early stage including the Bella Voce international student vocal competition 2005. Sergej Romanowsky performs at internationally renowned venues, including London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, La Scala Milan, the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and the opera houses in Brussels, Gothenburg, Oslo, Montreal, Toulouse and Bordeaux. The young singer has appeared in roles such as Lenski (Eugene Onegin) and Almaviva (Il barbiere di Siviglia), as well as Don Ramiro (La Cenerentola), Edgardo (Lucia di Lammermoor), Nemorino (L'elisir d 'amore), Ernesto (Don Pasquale) and Marzio (Mitridate, rè di Ponto). Sergey Romanovsky has worked with such conductors as Lorin Maazel, Alberto Zedda, Christophe Rousset and Ottavio Dantone, as well as directors Robert Carsen, Denis Krief, Stefano Mazzonis Di Pralafera and Luca Ronconi. Highlights of past seasons include his role debuts as Giasone in Cherubini’s Medea at the Wexford Festival Opera and as Rodrigo in Rossini’s La donna del Lago at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège. He also took on the title role of Verdi’s Don Carlos at the Opéra de Lyon and made his debut at the Opera House Muscat (as Gérald in Lakmé) and at the Bregenz Festival (as the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto). Sergey Romanovsky will now be heard in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation for the first time.

Evgeny Stavinsky, born into a family of musicians in Dubna, Russia, graduated in singing and chorusmaster studies from the Choral Academy of Moscow in 2003. He then continued his training in Italy at the Accademia del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, where he performed in the title role of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and as Lord Sidney (Il viaggio a Reims) and as Budd in Britten’s Albert Herring. Since 2007, the singer, who also works as a conductor and is music director of the Municipal Symphony Orchestra in Dubna, has been a member of the Kolobov Novaya Opera Theatre of Moscow, where he has appeared in the great bass parts of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Wagner and Strauss. Guest appearances have taken Evgeny Stavinsky to the Mariinsky Theatre, the opera houses in Bologna and Palermo, the Hungarian State Opera in Budapest and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London in roles including Raimondo Bidebent (Lucia di Lammermoor), Oroveso (Norma), Méphistophélès (La Damnation de Faust), Basilio (Il barbiere di Siviglia), Colline (La Bohème) and the monk in Donizetti’s long-lost opera L’Ange de Nisida. On the concert stage, the singer recently participated in performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony conducted by Riccardo Muti in Ravenna and Athens. In addition, in the current season he will perform under the direction of Teodor Currentzis in New York and Baden-Baden in the Requiem settings of Mozart and Verdi. In 2018, Evgeny Stavinsky was awarded the prestigious “Golden Mask” theatre award. He now makes his debut in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation.

The musicAeterna Choir was founded by Teodor Currentzis in Novosibirsk in 2004, and from 2011 was the resident ensemble at the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre. Since September 2019, musicAeterna (choir and orchestra) has been an independent and privately financed ensemble. The chamber choir has a broad repertoire which includes pieces by European and Russian Baroque composers, masterpieces of Russian choral music of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, numerous operas and contemporary music. As the resident choir of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre, musicAeterna participated in new productions of the Mozart operas Così fan tutte (2011), Le nozze di Figaro (2012) and Don Giovanni (2014), as well as performances of Purcell’s Indian Queen (2013), Offenbach’s Les Contes d'Hoffmann (2015), Borodin’s Prince Igor (2015), Verdi’s La traviata (2016) and Puccini’s La Bohème (2017). Moreover, musicAeterna has premiered several new works, including Dmitri Kourliandski’s opera Nosferatu (2014), Philippe Hersant’s choral opera Tristia (2015) and Alexei Syumak’s stage work Cantos (2016). The choir, which regularly works with guest conductors such as Paul Hillier, Andrea Marcon and Jérémie Rhorer, won the International Opera Award in 2018. MusicAeterna is regularly invited to the prestigious festivals in Brussels, Aix-en-Provence and Lucerne. At the Salzburg Festival 2017, the choir participated in performances of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito and, in the summer of 2019, in a production of Idomeneo directed by Peter Sellars. The choir musicAeterna last appeared in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation in late October 2018 in a performance of Philippe Hersant’s Tristia.

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