VERDI Messa da Requiem – Pappano
When Hans von Bülow described the Requiem as “Verdi’s latest opera, albeit in ecclesiastical garb”’, the ever percipient Brahms declared that he had made “an almighty fool of himself”. There always has been more to Verdi’s Requiem than popular perception would have us believe, which is why its recorded history has become so important to our evolving understanding of it. Three recordings stand out as landmark achievements: Toscanini’s live 1951 Carnegie Hall performance, Giulini’s 1963-64 studio recording, and the 1992 John Eliot Gardiner. To which we can now add, as a superbly realized 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, as is proved by Abbado’s oddly (and in a couple of cases, poorly) cast 2001 Berlin set.
Talk of Gardiner’s recording being a “period performance” was misleading. Gardiner further developed our sense of the multilayered 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.
My 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 I miss 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.