I had thought I was beginning to tire a little of the Requiem because it seemed no performance in concert or on record was really coming near to my ideal of an interpretation, which remains the unavailable Toscanini/RCA. Then I heard Massimo Freccia, a Toscanini protege, direct it at the Royal Albert Hall last spring. The 80-Plus veteran had come out of retirement to do a charity performance and without the score in front of him gave a straight, unvarnished reading in the Toscanini/Serafin mould that proved to me that the ideal, or something near it, is still capable of achievement by largely following what Verdi actually wanted.
There is another, much more flexible and 'interventionist' tradition of interpreting it stemming from de Sabata. Muti, both in his 1979 EMI version and here, follows this later fashion, which involves tempos that are substantially faster (Sanctus) or slower (opening ''Kyrie'', ''Rex tremendae'', ''Lacrymosa'') than Verdi indicates and permits far more rallentandos than are marked. Nobody wants slavish adherence to what may be accounted only as suggestions on the composer's part, but I do find that Muti sometimes loses the overall view of a movement by overplaying his hand as an interpreter. That is my main criticism of a performance that is certainly positive in its dramatic strength, deriving from Muti's close rapport with his Scala forces, who perform with great dedication in carrying out his meticulous attention to instrumental and rhythmic detail, though I cannot say it can be as clearly heard as on the earlier version (but more about the recording in a minute).
Here he has a very different chorus from the much smaller professional British group on the earlier set. That has advantages and disadvantages. The sound here is grander, more specifically operatic in scale as one would expect, with some arrestingly histrionic effects such as the bold, black-browed singing at ''Rex tremendae'' and the awed senza misura incantation at the start of the Libera me. But there is not quite the bright, incisive quality found on the former recording. The Sanctus, a few seconds slower than in 1979, is still unwontedly quick, but the Scala singers seem to revel in coping with the speed, as they do with the hard-driving Dies irae. Similar detailed effects inform the fine playing of the Scala orchestra, not least the beseeching strings right at the start of the whole work and the plangent wind in the ''Ingemisco''.
Recording live, or mostly so (see Edward Seckerson on page 696), always helps to catch the frisson of a real occasion, but it has a certain drawback here in the fact that the performance starts hesitantly, particularly where the soloists are concerned Cheryl Studer, whom I have much admired for her Wagner singing at Bayreuth and Munich, seems at the beginning a shade tentative and over-awed; no wonder, given the circumstances of her appearance described by Seckerson, which may explain some cloud in the tone at her ''huic ergo'' entry in the ''Lacrymosa'', but as the evening develops she confirms that she is one answer to the dearth of
Her slightly resinous tone blends very well with Zajic's in the ''Recordare'' and the Agnus Dei, one of the set's most successful movements. On her own Zajic, who was Muti's Preziosilla in La forza, also improves from an anonymous start to reach heights of eloquence at the start of the Lux aeterna. The dark grain of her chest register contrasts with a degree of brilliance at the top; I don't think the mezzo 'role' has been better filled in any of the recent versions.
Many will probably buy the recording for Pavarotti so I am happy to assure them that he is in his best, most persuasive form, more individual and subtle in utterance (listen to his many shades of colour in the ''Ingemisco'') than for Solti (Decca), even if the voice has lost a little of its old opulence. He is also more considerate of his colleagues in the unaccompanied passages, which here are as carefully blended as on any recording, much helped by Ramey's solid bottom line. Ramey trumps even Pavarotti at ''Hostias'' in the ''Domine Jesu'', his dolcissimo singing here full of inward feeling. ''Oro supplex'', taken up to Verdi's tempo rather than being dragged as it can be by heavier basses, is firmly and securely phrased. Others have sung the bass part with more character, few—except Pinza—with such security and musicality.
With so much to enjoy in the performance, why do I hesitate giving this set my recommendation? Mainly on account of the recording. From the very start, I realized this was a recessed recording.
The producer, talking to Seckerson, speaks of the need for space, Well, in achieving it he seems to have lost much sense of immediacy. Quite exceptionally when playing the CDs, I had to have my volume control up to an unusually high level to achieve any kind of impact. Even then the character of the soloists' voices is hard to discern as they are so backwardly recorded. To make certain my ears didn't deceive me, I made a direct comparison, in the ''Lacrymosa'', with the Giulini version (also EMI). There the voices really have presence at a comparatively low volume setting, and I must say I prefer it, as I still prefer that performance in spite of its considerable sonic limitations. As a whole it seems both more spiritual, more refined than the new one. However, where the chorus and orchestra are concerned, the new Muti certainly achieves a theatrical perspective, catching the atmosphere of La Scala, and the choral recording obviously has a bigger range than on his old set. Aurally, for those who admire it more as a performance than I do (HF among them), the Solti on Decca still sounds as impressive as ever, but studio-bound when compared with the EMI. The Abbado (DG), also made with La Scala forces, hasn't the character of the new Muti and on the whole less satisfactory soloists. On the other hand, the Kord performance (Rodolphe), is both persuasive and very well recorded, if a little too well mannered.
Even after all these years, the Giulini is hard to beat, and it has the added advantage of including the Four Sacred Pieces. On its own the Requiem isn't that good value on two CDs. For all that, I found much to enjoy in this new Muti and will return to it often. In spite of reservations about the recording, it would easily be my preference among the more modern versions.'