Verdi Requiem & Schubert Mass 6

Live recordings demonstrating both Giulini’s greatness and the best in British choral and orchestral performance in the 1960s

Author: 
Richard Osborne
Giulini - Verdi, SchubertGiulini - Verdi, Schubert

VERDI Messa da Requiem; SCHUBERT Mass No 6 – Giulini

  • Mass No. 6
  • Messa da Requiem
  • (I) Vespri siciliani, '(The) Sicilian Vespers', Overture

All things come to those who wait, I reflected, when I saw that BBC Legends had chosen to release Giulini’s live 1968 Edinburgh Festival performance of Schubert’s late Mass in E flat. Giulini had wanted to record a Schubert Mass (he actually began work on a recording in Vienna in 1973) but abandoned the project when he discovered that the Vienna Singverein was in such poor shape it was incapable of doing the work justice. He recorded Bruckner’s Second Symphony instead (though caught up with the Schubert live in 1996 for Sony Classical, 2/97, a reading Marc Rochester felt ‘not so much listless as downright soporific’).
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 (neither man gets a credit in the BBC Legends booklet, though Alan Blyth mentions both in his note). Even allowing for the fact that this Prom 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.
The Schubert is demanding in a different way. Apart from the ‘Incarnatus’, where a soprano and two tenors briefly take centre stage, it is a work for chorus and orchestra alone, a 55-minute, non-stop sing. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus acquits itself magnificently. Providing you don’t make the mistake of playing the Schubert the same day (possibly the same week) as the Verdi, it makes its effect. As you would expect, Giulini’s reading is powerful and reverential, one in which the chorus comes to speak with the single voice of an individual believer.
In the Usher Hall recording, the choir is rarely as thrillingly ‘present’ as it is in the Royal Albert Hall Verdi (I say ‘rarely’ because the ‘Crucifixus’ is sung with a degree of on-the-spot immediacy that is quite terrifying). Still, it all works pretty well. It was only with the score before me (quite the worst way to listen to music, as the late Neville Cardus never tired of reminding us) that I was aware how much more thrilling a studio recording might have been, with choral and orchestral voices more precisely balanced.
The Verdi, as I say, is superbly recorded. Where EMI’s engineers, working within the narrower confines of the Kingsway Hall, ended up with an unduly close and overloaded sound in the ‘Dies irae’ and ‘Sanctus’, the unnamed BBC team working live in the Royal Albert Hall produce sound that is focused yet open, clear but warm. In the more intimate solo numbers, there is little to choose between the recordings, though the live performance inevitably has more atmosphere. (There is applause but it is possible to contrive a dignified exit before it starts.)
Giulini’s reading of the Requiem, thrilling yet humane, is precisely the one we hear on the EMI recording, with the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra as expert live as they are on record (the orchestral playing is well-nigh flawless; only Karajan’s Berliners or Szell’s Cleveland Orchestra could have matched what the Philharmonia achieves here).
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, at the height of his powers, is more than a match for the younger Nicolai Ghiaurov.
As for Amy Shuard and EMI’s Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, they are complementary. Giulini had originally wanted Callas for the recording; like Shuard, she had the Aida-voice the soprano part (the ‘Libera me’, in particular) is generally believed to need. Schwarzkopf, the nominated stand-in, sings throughout with astonishing skill and sensibility – an object-lesson in how the part should be handled vocally. Shuard is also technically fine; not as fine as Schwarzkopf but very much the real thing dramatically and absolutely right for the live performance.
Since there is all too little of this remarkable singer on record, here is yet a further reason for acquiring this – to me, already indispensable – two-CD set.
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