Classical ensembles love to celebrate composer anniversaries, and few parties will be bigger than this year’s double-barreled, Verdi-Wagner bicentennial. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, as it turns out, has pressed a single maestro into service — the Italian conductor Daniele Gatti — to mark both occasions. In March he will conduct an all-Wagner program, and Thursday night in Symphony Hall, he led the BSO, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and a quartet of vocal soloists in a dynamic and viscerally charged performance of Verdi’s monumental Requiem.
Written in tribute to the writer and Italian national hero Alessandro Manzoni, the Requiem uses a setting that famously weds the sacred and the profane, music of the church and of the theater. Reviewing its 1878 Boston premiere by the Handel and Haydn Society, John Sullivan Dwight cited its delicate beauty but also noted its “cheap and coarse effects in plenty.” Even modern audiences who have come to love this masterwork can agree that Virgil Thomson’s quip about Messiaen may be applied here too: There are plenty of moments designed to simultaneously open the gates of heaven and bring down the house.
Gatti seemed to relish especially the latter, in a fluid and sometimes smoldering performance that was nonetheless often impressively poised and attentive to musical details. From the hushed opening bars, Gatti drew out long singing lines from the orchestra, while also clearly prizing textural and rhythmic clarity. He showed a knack for organic tempo choices and transitions that captured the full drama and, at times, fury of this remarkable score. The same might be said of his conducting of the Tanglewood Chorus, which sang superbly, its performance in the Dies Irae duly terrifying yet free of stridency, its Sanctus measured with a welcome dignified gait. In one curious detail, for reasons unclear, Gatti had the chorus often seated and then leaping to its feet before an entrance, with predictably unsettled results.
The quartet of vocal soloists — Fiorenza Cedolins, Ekaterina Gubanova, Stuart Neill, and Carlo Colombara — was generally capable but uneven, with Gubanova as a clear standout, the pathos in Verdi’s solo writing amply conveyed by her generous and dusky mezzo-soprano. The two female soloists partnered for a lovely, undulant Agnus Dei.
The BSO as a whole seemed alert and highly responsive to Gatti’s direction. His two additional weeks of subscription programs, later in the season, will be keenly anticipated.