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Leontyne Price Soprano Rosalind Elias Mezzo-Soprano Jussi-Bjorling Tenor Giorgi Tozzi Bass
Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra Fritz Reiner Conductor

Four Sacred Pieces

Yvonne Minton Mezzo-Soprano
Los Angeles Master Chorale Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta Conductor
DECCA CD1 467 119-2
Crotchet     Amazon UK  

These CDs have been issued by Decca in their "Legendary Performances" series; the recording was originally issued on the Ace of Diamonds label in 1960. Fritz Reiner belonged to that era of revered authoritarian conductors (including Toscanini, Klemperer and Beecham) who dominated the pre-Second World War orchestral scene. His reputation was achieved very largely through his interpretations of Wagner opera in America and Europe and his orchestral directorships in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Chicago. This recording of the Verdi Requiem came towards the very end of his conducting career and only 3 years before his death. George Hall's accompanying notes contrast Reiner's reputation for "military precision" with his observation that this account of the Requiem is "not the most precise version on disc", and draws attention to just how much slower many of his tempi are compared to those indicated on the score by Verdi. To discuss this point further, it is worth setting out the full set of tempi (in beats per minute) as performed, followed by Verdi's metronome markings in brackets:

Requiem aeternam Andante 36 (80) Te decet hymnus Poco piu 58 (88)
Dies irae Allegro agitato 80 (84) Tuba mirum Allegro sostenuto 80 (88)
Mors stupebit Molto meno mosso 56 (72) Quid sum miser Adagio 90 (100)
Rex tremendae Adagio maestoso 52 (72) Confutatis Andante 70 (96)
Lacrymosa Largo 50 (60)
Offertio Andante mosso 40 (66)
Sanctus & Osanna (fugue) Allegro 112 (112)
Agnus Dei Andante 66 (84)
Lux aeterna Allegro moderato 57 (88)
Requiem aeternam Andante 43 (80)
Libera me (fugue) Allegro 92 (116).

Perusal of these figures justifies the conclusion that, with few exceptions, the tempi are indeed slow. However, it is also true that Verdi's indicative markings are mostly faster then we are accustomed to hearing them - I would be willing to wager that modern performances never match them in all sections. The places where Reiner's tempi are plodding, laboured and really drag are the opening Requiem aeternam and the Te decet hymnus. The reprise of Requiem aeternam just before the final Libera me fugue is indeed cruelly slow for the soprano soloist, wondrously sustained as the singing of Leontyne Price is in this most technically demanding of passages. To maintain such perfect intonation for so long a time unaccompanied, as she does, is a true test of greatness. For the rest, the tempi do not feel slow - it is simply a matter of the putting impatience aside and entering into the whole spirit of the performance. The listener who does this is richly rewarded: the tempi allow him to savour the glorious sensuality of Verdi's melodic lines and experience their spiritual depths. Verdi wrote multitudinous and remarkably detailed instructions in the score of the Requiem, indicating that he had a very precise idea of exactly how the finished product should sound. It is in his strict fidelity to Verdi's markings that Reiner's rhythmical precision and textural clarity serve, rather than detract from, the emotional intensity of the music. The whole of the Dies irae and Offertio merit repeated playings, as each time more and more detailed nuances become manifest to the listener - subtleties that all too often get washed over in performance.

At the same time there is no lack of apocalyptic fire and thunder. The Dies irae, Tuba mirum and Rex tremendae depict awe-struck terror with as much impact as may be heard on any recording. We may also note that the Reiner is fully up to speed on the Allegro movements, including a glitteringly precise rendering of the Sanctus double fugue.

Reiner's interpretation enjoys the wholehearted cooperation and participation of the internationally renowned quartet of soloists - each of them having "star" status individually, but also engaging in superb ensemble singing. The recording engineers also merit commendation for faithfully reproducing the extremes of dynamic range, with the pppp passages remaining clearly audible, whilst avoiding distortion when the fff sections are blasting at maximum, thereby heightening the dramatic impact of the whole performance.

As a bonus, these CDs include the Four Sacred Pieces, originally recorded ten years later under the baton of Zubin Mehta. The unaccompanied singing of Los Angeles Master Chorale is a particular joy here and Yvonne Minton acquits the soloist lines with just the right mix of serenity and intensity. The combined forces in the Te Deum provide a deeply satisfying culmination of the whole work. These pieces should perhaps be listened to separately from the Requiem, being as they are closer to the ecclesiastical liturgical musical tradition (albeit they are usually performed in the concert hall), whereas the Requiem is much more operatic in style, and requires a switch of mind set.

These CDs can be heartily recommended for both Verdi afficianados who relish an alternative to more conventional renderings and also for first time listeners who seek a thoroughly authentic introduction to Verdi's greatest choral music.

Humphrey Smith

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