Verdi Messa da Requiem
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. Margaret Price certainly didn’t, which makes this a significant addition to a select but distinguished discography of memorable choral performances which began with Elgar’s The Kingdom under Boult and included Messiah recordings under Somary and Colin Davis, and an admired Brahms German Requiem under André Previn.
The Radio 3 sound is generally first-rate. I say “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.
Helmuth Rilling has been a stalwart of the choral scene since the mid-1950s when he founded Stuttgart’s Gächinger Kantorei which features on this new recording of the Requiem. It is Rilling’s first, if I am not mistaken, though he has recorded the original version of the Libera me which Verdi wrote in 1869 as his contribution to the multi-authored Messa per Rossini commissioned by Verdi after the composer’s death the previous year. Rilling gave the Messa per Rossini its long-delayed world premiere in September 1988 and made its first and only recordings (Hännsler, 2/90; Warner Music Vision, 3/07) at much the same time. The choral work in the Sanctus and elsewhere is of a quality one has come to expect from Rilling’s Stuttgart forces, even though in point of detail Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir is often superior and Pappano’s Santa Cecilia chorus every bit as good. What acts as a dead weight on Rilling’s performance is the static feel his often drawn-out tempi give to many of the work’s meditative sections.
Rilling’s tendency to leave his soloists stuck with the notes rather than freeing them to project Verdi’s word-setting as a living human utterance is most in evidence in the opening movement and during the vast 700-bar Dies irae sequence which follows. The Lux aeterna is similarly burdened, which comes as something of a disappointment after gravely beautiful accounts of the Offertorium and Agnus Dei where Rilling moves the music forward rather more persuasively.
Anke Vondung is the pick of Rilling’s soloists, none of whom is in the same class as Giulini’s, Gardiner’s or Pappano’s. Carlo Colombara has had his moments in the sun where the Requiem is concerned – he recorded it under Colin Davis (RCA, 1/93) and Morandi – though like the rest of us he isn’t getting any younger.
The Morandi has long been a budget-price recommendation for the Requiem though I would suggest that the López-Cobos has now stolen a march in this particular price category.