Verdi was primarily a composer of opera. His Messa da Requiem, first performed in 1874 as a tribute to the late Italian poet and author Alessandro Manzoni, can be heard, to quote conductor Hans von Bülow, as “Oper im Kirchengewande” (“opera in church robes”).

The West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s principal conductor Asher Fisch is an acclaimed conductor of opera. Even his fine interpretations of romantic orchestral masterworks sound operatically conceived, in terms of their soloistic and concertante characterisations, their narrative thrust and their pronounced drama.

Yet all great artists confound. Verdi is on record as saying his Requiem shouldn’t be too theatrical. And for this Saturday night performance of the Requiem, Fisch – in the effect, if not necessarily the intention – seemed to hear the Requiem as some grand choral symphony.

Asher Fisch

The core of Verdi’s Requiem is the lengthy sequence Dies irae (Day of Wrath – the Day of Judgement). It is effectively bookended by, at the beginning, the Introit (Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine) and Kyrie; and at the sequence’s end, the Offertory, Sanctus, Agnus dei, Lux aeterna and Libera me.

There are a number of settings of the Requiem Mass from the Renaissance onwards that owe their lasting fame to a masterly balance of pathos and drama, regardless of stylistic constraints, including those by Victoria, Gilles, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Mozart, Berlioz and Fauré.

Many, like Charpentier and Mozart, were also opera composers who didn’t think twice about incorporating operatic devices into their sacred music. It was perfectly natural. And Verdi’s best operas were less potboilers than psychological character studies.

Verdi’s Requiem therefore owes its success to a highly imaginative response from an atheist to a plotless (as opposed to static) text which nevertheless evokes profound feelings of terror, awe, pity and even piety.

At his disposal, Fisch had the combined forces of WASO, WASO Chorus, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Chorus, St George’s Cathedral Consort and a quartet of soloists comprising soprano Siobhan Stagg, mezzo Stefanie Irányi, tenor Paul O’Neill and baritone Warwick Fyfe.

Once we got past the hushed majesty and plaintive sonic plenitude of the opening Requiem and Kyrie, Fisch suddenly metamorphosed into one of those demons in Dante’s Inferno who drives the tortured souls of the damned through fiery landscapes with no hope of respite.

Except in this case the soloists, choir and orchestra were loving it.

The Dies irae: thundering bass drum, excoriating semiquavers throughout the sections, trumpets in the Tuba mirum exactly what it says on the packet – Tutta forza, sempre animando. You couldn’t help but think of Berlioz’s equally novel word-painting here.

And so it continued, for over an hour. By the time we hit the stretti in the Libera me at the other end, we were already bewitched, bothered and bewildered. This was an unforgettable performance, made so by some of the most committed singing and playing ever to rattle the boards of the Perth Concert Hall stage.

I recall Fyfe’s rich utterances in the Mors stupebit et natura. A terrific Rex tremendae majestatis and Lacrimosa dies illa with the vocal quartet and chorus. Stagg’s and Irányi’s radiant duets in the Recordare, Jesu pie and Agnus dei. O’Neill’s passionate Ingemisco tamquam reus. A joyful fugal explosion from choir and orchestra in the Sanctus. The heavenly trio of Irányi, O’Neill and Fyfe floating on shimmering strings in the Lux aeterna.

One could cite many more such instances. All of which would only serve to make the point again: expressive intensity like this both particularises and universalises, hence the idea of a symphony.

And if in our secular society such works as Verdi’s Requiem rely on more abstract notions of heaven and hell to ensure their artistic relevance, the lethal extremes of weather currently experienced throughout Australia serve to remind us that less abstract notions of heaven and hell may be just around the corner.