Verdi Requiem. Rossini Stabat Mater
The man is a musical polymath. Having just given us on DG a complete Beethoven cycle, a disc of Kurt Weill songs and Die lustige Witwe, Gardiner has now turned to Verdi with predictably astonishing results. In the light of the Capriccio and DG versions of the Requiem out this month, one new one an important reissue, Gardiner's is thrown into even sharper perspective. In terms of instrumental and vocal detail, internal balance, textural clarity and dynamic grading it is in a class of its own an achievement made possible by Gardiner's discipline over forces who know him well and who are dedicated to his will.
Listen to the perfectly graded crescendo in the Kyrie at ''luceat eis'' just before the soloists first enter, the really hushed sotto voce in the Dies irae the double and triple dotting in ''Rex tremenda'' the discipline and detail throughout an exhilarating Sanctus, the exquisitely judged senza misura at the start of the ''Libera me'', then the attack in the same movement's fugue—and the dramatic intensity of the ''Stabat mater'' climaxes in the Quattro Pezzi Sacri. These are just a few of the many moments of revelation in readings that combine a positive view and interpretative integrity from start to finish, something possible only in the context of the superb professionalism of the (augmented) Monteverdi Choir, which sings with burnished, steady tone throughout and suggests, rightly, a corporate act of worship. Its contribution is beyond praise—and Verdi would surely have marvelled at that.
He might also have been surprised and delighted to hear the soloists' contribution sung with such precision by such a finely integrated quartet, who perform the important unaccompanied passages with special grace and sensitivity. Instead of hearing the usual jostle of vibratos (as on the Capriccio version), here the four voices are firm and true. Individually they are also distinguished. Pride of place must go to Orgonasova who gives the performance of her life. The exactly placed high B in the ''Quid sum miser'' section of the Dies irae, the perfect blending with von Otter at ''Dominum'' (bar 434 in the miniature score), the whole of the Andante section of the ''Libera me'', sung with ethereal tone and a long breath, make the heart stop in amazement. Von Otter's singing is trenchant, compact, composed, never a note out of place, though inevitably she doesn't carry the weight or emotional overtones of a Stignani, a Cossotto or a Dominguez (see below). Canonici is to be praised for avoiding tenor histrionics—his restrained singing, especially at the ''Hostias'' in the ''Offertorio'', is notable for its beseeching understatement—but set beside some predecessors he is a shade anonymous.
Alastair Miles, sounding ever more like Samuel Ramey (bass on the somewhat underrated Muti set), has the sturdy grip on his music of his model singing throughout with unfailing strength and musicality, nowhere more so than in ''Oro supplex''. This is one place where Gardiner follows Verdi's tempo marking. More often he follows tradition, with slower speeds than those suggested, and he allows more licence than the score, or conductors like Toscanini—at least in his 1951 RCA version would permit. He also begins the animando in ''Ingemisco'' some bars before Verdi's injunction, but as his liberties all seem so convincing in the context of the whole, who should complain.
The recording, made in Westminster Cathedral has a huge range which may cause problems in confined spaces. If you have the volume high enough to catch the many ppp passages you are liable to be overwhelmed by, for instance, the Dies irae.
The Capriccio recording is also wide in range but not so well focused. The same might be said of the performance. On another day, without the Gardiner in close proximity, I might be more indulgent to this somewhat approximate but emotionally sincere and extrovert reading. The Bulgarian chorus sings grandly and often with a deal of sensitivity and the orchestra is more than adequate, but Tabakov's conducting is frequently self-indulgent: the excess of slowness at the start for instance.
The soloists are all over the place at the beginning but improve as the performance progresses, particularly the soprano Romanko who has a generous Vishneskaya-like voice, and occasionally a wobble to match; she does an urgent, forceful ''Libera me''. The tenor is also inclined to unsteadiness under pressure yet has his moments, such as a finely phrased ''Ingemisco''. Grandis suffers from pitch problems and a weakness at the top, he is no match here for Miles. These three young singers are given a lesson in technique and interpretation by the experienced Toczyska, who shuns their histrionics and sings with firmness allied to shapely phrasing, as in her ''Liber scriptus''.
The Fricsay is another matter. This live recording, made in 1960, first issued here in 1989, remains a very special experience. The mortally ill conductor directs a reading that deals in immortal matters. His choir and orchestra are as familiar with his ways as are Gardiner's, and the results are often shattering. Fricsay is almost as exacting in his effects as Gardiner, in one place more so: he observes more pertinently the sudden, shimmering forte just before the ''Hostias''. Such conviction and immediacy at a live performance cannot be matched even by Gardiner, working as it were in the studio, and the recording, though having none of the breadth of the Gardiner, and in mono, sometimes sounds more natural.
The soloists, with the exception of the soprano sing on a grander scale than Gardiner's and are given greater prominence (which I appreciate). Dominguez remains one of the most compelling mezzos in any version, inevitably capable of a greater range of expression than von Otter. Listen to her at the start of the ''Lacrimosa''. Carelli, a Gigli pupil copies the master to good and bad effect. sardi is admirable in every respect, more overtly expressive than Miles. Stader, still an appreciable singer in 1960, doesn't match Orgonasova in control.
By and large this is a less contained, more spontaneously histrionic reading than Gardiner's and one of the most significant the work has ever had. Even if you opt for the Gardiner, listen to the Fricsay and you may want it as a reasonably priced adjunct. Since the day I first heard this version nearly six years ago, it has been an important and moving part of my experience of the work, and that is true I know for others.
In the Pezzi sacri (included only on the CD set), Gardiner gives the most thrilling account yet to appear, superior even to those by Giulini (1964 vintage, listed above) or Herbert Kegel (Philips, 7/78—nla). That completes what, for many, may now be a preferred choice in both works, versions very much in sympathy with the 1990s style of performance and thinking. As regards the Requiem alone, Gardiner will have to take his place alongside such classics as the Serafin and Toscanini (1939 and 1940 vintage, both on a single CD), the 1964 Giulini, the 1967 Karajan on LaserDisc (DG, 9/91), not forgetting Muti and, of course, the Fricsay.
In its previous incarnation, the Fricsay was more logically coupled with his account of the Pezzi sacri. Now it is partnered by his 1955 account of Rossini's Stabat mater, a welcome reappearance, once again for Fricsay's identification with the music in hand and his accomplished (if un-Italianate) soloists.'