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25 - ‘The Virgin Maestro’: Conducting Verdi’s Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 April 2021

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Summary

I SPENT MUCH of my late sixties planning a concert I would conduct of the Verdi Requiem. It was an event I had dreamed of since hearing the Requiem in the Royal Albert Hall in the early 1950s. That key performance was conducted by the immensely tall Italian maestro Alberto Erede. Another inspiring performance I treasured (and televised) was Claudio Abbado's in the 1960s at the Edinburgh Festival with Margaret Price and Jessye Norman. What attracted me to Verdi's Requiem? The thrill of the four soloists entering the opening ‘Kyrie’ one by one, which I described earlier as resembling Atlantic waves rolling in to a Cornish cove. To that I would add the whiff of fire and brimstone in the ‘Dies Irae’; the distant trumpets calling across the depths in the ‘Tuba mirum’; the heart-turning melody of the ‘Agnus Dei’, sung in unison; the raw drama of the soprano's final, hushed, imploring ‘deliver me from eternal death’: Libera me de morte aeterna. It is a long list.

I wanted to conduct this magnificent work before I died. It would need stamina and untried conducting skills, the latter a risky assumption since I had last conducted a choir when I was still an undergraduate and had never conducted an orchestra in anything longer than a ten-minute Beethoven overture: my Turkish conductor friend Cem Mansur had invited me to try my hand at conducting the Egmont overture. That was with his Oxford orchestra in the Sheldonian. I followed that up on June 22, 1997 at St John’s, Smith Square with the overture to Mozart's The Impresario. The main attraction of this latter concert, a fundraiser, was Claus Moser playing a Mozart piano concerto. We had enlisted as our principal conductor that evening a Cambridge undergraduate named Daniel Harding, only nineteen at the time and rightly considered the best conducting hope to have appeared in this country since Simon Rattle. His Haydn symphony that evening was very stylish. I still have a recording of the entire concert on a miserable little sound cassette.

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Humphrey Burton In My Own Time
An Autobiography
, pp. 509 - 522
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2021

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