Verdi's Requiem

Gramophone Fri 25th April 2014

Recommended recordings of Verdi's Messa da Requiem - his only masterpiece not intended for the stage

Verdi's only masterpiece not intended for the stage was aptly described by Hans von Bülow as 'Verdi's latest opera, in church vestments.' Its elegaic, spiritual moments (the tenor's 'Ingemisco', for instance, sometimes sung as a concert item) are combined with a heartfelt intensity and stirring theatricality setting it a long way from the masses of Bach or Mozart.

Gramophone Choice

Anja Harteros (sop) Sonia Ganassi (mez) Rolando Villazón (ten) René Pape (bass) Chorus and Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia / Antonio Pappano

EMI 698936-2 (84’ · DDD · T/t) Recorded live 2009  Buy from Amazon

Three recordings stand out as landmark achievements: Toscanini’s live 1951 Carnegie Hall performance (RCA), Giulini’s 1963-64 studio recording (EMI) and the 1992 John Eliot Gardiner (Philips). To which we can now add, as a superbly realised garnering of these accumulated insights, this exceptionally fine new Pappano set.

Toscanini’s performance represented the old authenticity. Toscanini played for Verdi and knew the tradition from within. He conducted the Requiem with Italian singers and an unremitting intensity, born in part of a desire to honour the often surprisingly brisk metronome marks. It was Giulini who forged another way, more Catholic and more considered, in a reading that opened out the work’s meditative aspect, marrying broad tempi in the lyric sections to a powerfully argued dramatic continuum organically evolved.

So concentrated an approach places great demands on the solo quartet and here Giulini set the bar high in terms of both the quality of the voices needed and their blend. Without these qualities – Gardiner’s soloists have them and so in remarkable measure do Pappano’s – the Holy Grail of a near-perfect Verdi Requiem will always be a distant dream.

Gardiner further developed our sense of the multi-layered skill of Verdi’s vocal writing. His expert shaping of the vocal lines – tempi finely judged, often broad, never metronomically driven – revealed the work occupying spaces which Bruckner or Fauré might have been pleased to inhabit. And now Pappano follows suit. The Monteverdi Choir, you might think, would have a head start over Rome’s Santa Cecilia Chorus; yet it is a sign of how far choral singing has come in recent years that nowadays even an Italian opera chorus is not easily out­manoeuvred. The Santa Cecilia Sanctus, defter than Giulini’s, is almost as dancingly precise as Gardiner’s. Moulding vocal and instrumental lines with an authentically Italianate feel is important to any performance of the Requiem. Second nature to Toscanini and Giulini, it is a quality that contributes hugely to the eloquence and allure of Pappano’s performance. You hear this early in the sense of a live narrative unfolding which mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi brings to the ‘Liber scriptus’. Fine as Gardiner’s Anne Sofie von Otter is at this point, the manner is a degree or two less Italianate.

Ganassi’s soprano partner is Anja Harteros. Where Giulini sought fuller voices – Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Christa Ludwig, both flawless and richly involving – Harteros’s lighter yet similarly accomplished singing, radiant and sympathetic, suits Pappano’s reading to perfection: part and parcel of the wonderful blend within the quartet. It was Giulini’s Nicolai Gedda who showed how the tenor is more an inspiring presence than an egregious show­stopper. Rolando Villazón is similarly discreet in the self-abasing loveliness of his ‘Ingemisco’ and the proffered quiet of the ‘Hostias’. Meanwhile, the bass René Pape is as fine as any on record, strong yet discreet, with a mastery of the subtly inflected cantabile line that is profoundly satisfying. As with Alastair Miles’s not dissimilar performance under Gardiner, this is markedly different from the Commendatore-like manner of Giulini’s Nicolai Ghiaurov.

Where London’s Kingsway Hall barely contained the might of Giulini’s reading, Rome’s superb new Parco della Musica auditorium is all clarity and ease, as sympathetic to the Lieder-like musings of the Agnus Dei as it is to the ­decibel-fuelled fires of the ‘Dies irae’. Pappano’s all-inclusive reading needs both.  

The sole reservation concerns the opening. The composer Ildebrando Pizzetti spoke of the Requiem beginning ‘like the murmur of an invisible crowd’. Even so, you will have difficulty hearing anything on the new set much before bar 6. What one misses here is the old Italian way of suggesting intense quiet with a pianissimo that truly sounds. Pappano’s tempo for the first 77 bars is not, by post-Toscanini standards, unduly slow yet on this occasion it is only with the arrival of the tenor’s cry of ‘Kyrie’ that the great musical journey really begins.

That apart, it is wonderful to hear the Requiem so memorably revealed as the dramatic and meditative masterpiece it clearly is.

Additional Recommendations

Margaret Price (sop) Livia Budai (mez) Giuseppe Giacomini (ten) Robert Lloyd (bass) London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra / Jesús López-Cobos

LPO LPO0048 (83’ · DDD · T/t) Recorded live 1983 Buy from Amazon

Regular concertgoers have long memories, so it is not surprising that someone has recalled a special performance of Verdi’s Requiem which took place in London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1983. Memories may have been stirred by the fact that Margaret Price was the soprano soloist that evening, though this is one of those performances which achieves memorability through the happy conjunction of its several parts.

Central to the experience is the 43-year-old Spanish-born Jesús López-Cobos, whose ­conducting has fire, grace and an enviably unselfconscious feel for the work’s musical and spiritual dynamic. Like the post-war recordings of the Requiem conducted by Fricsay and Toscanini, it is a reading instilled with fire; yet it is never as consciously ‘driven’ as those ­celebrated recordings occasionally were.

Both orchestra and choir acquit themselves with distinction and the soloists work well, both individually and as a team. The two British singers, Margaret Price and Robert Lloyd, are in exceptional form. I can’t recall whether Robert Lloyd ever recorded the Requiem commercially. The BBC Radio 3 sound is generally first-rate: ‘generally’, because the initial onslaught of the Dies irae appears to test the source recording to its limit. There is some residual distortion here which may cause lip-pursing among the purists.

The Morandi on Naxos has long been a ­budget-price recommendation for the Requiem: the López-Cobos has now stolen a march in this particular price category.

Verdi Messa da Requiem. I vespri siciliani – Overture Schubert Mass No 6 in E flat, D950

Anne Pashley, Amy Shuard (sops) Sybil Michelow, Anna Reynolds (mezs) David Hughes, Richard Lewis, Duncan Robertson (tens) William McCue, David Ward (basses) Scottish Festival Chorus, New Philharmonia Orchestra; Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra / Carlo Maria Giulini 

BBC Legends BBCL4029-2 (153' · ADD) Recorded live 1963, 1968 Buy from Amazon

In Great Britain in the 1960s, the art of large-scale choral singing reached what was arguably its apogee with the work of the two choruses featured here: the Philharmonia Chorus, directed by Wilhelm Pitz, and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, directed by Arthur Oldham. Even allowing for the fact that this Proms performance of the Verdi Requiem was given around the time of an intensive period of rehearsal during which the EMI studio recording was also being made, the Philharmonia Chorus’s singing is stunningly good: first-rate diction, impeccable intonation, fine dynamic control and absolute involvement in the music as Giulini relays it to them. 

In the Schubert Mass the Edinburgh Festival Chorus acquits itself magnificently. Giulini’s reading is powerful and reverential, one in which the chorus comes to speak with the single voice of an individual believer. 

The Verdi is superbly recorded. The un­named BBC team working live in the Royal Albert Hall produce sound that’s focused yet open, clear but warm. Giulini’s reading of the Requiem, thrilling yet humane, is precisely the one we hear on EMI’s recording, with the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra as expert live as they are on record (the orchestral playing is well-nigh flawless). Of the solo singers, the youngest, Anna Reynolds, could have gone straight into the EMI recording, so well does she sing. Richard Lewis, nearing the end of his career, is less gorgeous of voice than EMI’s Nicolai Gedda, but the bass, David Ward, here at the height of his powers, is more than a match for the younger Nicolai Ghiaurov. Amy Shuard and EMI’s Elisabeth Schwarzkopf are complementary. Shuard is technically fine; very much the real thing dramatically and absolutely right for the live performance. In short, this is an indispensable set. 

DVD Recommendation

Leontyne Price (sop) Fiorenza Cossotto (mez) Luciano Pavarotti (ten) Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass) Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan / Herbert von Karajan 

Video director Henri-Georges Clouzot

DG DVD 073 4055GH (84’ · NTSC · 4:3 · PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 · 0 · s) Buy from Amazon

This film of the Verdi Requiem was made under studio conditions, in an empty La Scala before a concert in 1967 in memory of Toscanini’s death a decade earlier. In his vision of this work, Henri-Georges Clouzot sees ranks of choristers – from heaven or hell – with Price and Cossotto framed by the sopranos’ hands and grey silk wraps beneath like angels’ wings, double basses angled heavenwards, Karajan’s quiff with a life of its own, his profile at home among all those Roman (and Milanese) noses.

Price is simply magnificent but Karajan colludes with Cossotto (in a lovely black empire-line number) in letting her steal the show, as the two of them warm every line with intimate little touches: the ‘Recordare’ and ‘Lux aeterna’ are rapt highlights. Pavarotti, clutching a score like a votive offering, looks out of his depth in such company but he shades the opening phrase of ‘Hostias’ with all the subtlety at his disposal. Ragged choral work and occasional dead spots notwithstanding – the ‘Quam olim’ and Sanctus seem handled rather than shaped – Clouzot’s and Karajan’s achievement has the authentic sniff of pathos. Even Toscanini might have given grudging approval. 

Explore: 

Gramophone Subscriptions

From£67/year

Gramophone Print

Gramophone Print

no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£67/year
Subscribe
From£67/year

Gramophone Reviews

Gramophone Reviews

no Print Edition
no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Events & Offers
From£67/year
Subscribe
From£67/year

Gramophone Digital Edition

Gramophone Digital Edition

no Print Edition
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£67/year
Subscribe

If you are a library, university or other organisation that would be interested in an institutional subscription to Gramophone please click here for further information.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2018