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VERDI Giuseppe

Messa da Requiem*, Quattro pezzi sacri**
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)*, Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano)*, Nicolai Gedda (tenor)*, Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass)*, Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano)**, Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini
Recorded 1963-4*, 1962**
EMI Great Recordings of the Century CMS 5 67560 2 [2 CDs, 67'02", 61'43"]
£17.00   Amazon UK   £17.99 Amazon US

The problem with recordings of this age is that they do not seem old enough to warrant the allowances we make for material derived from 78s and early mono LPs, but nor do they always entirely satisfy. More than actual distortion, of which there are only occasional traces as the choral sopranos ascend to fortissimo Bs and Cs, there is a certain woolliness about the sound, and the stereo images suggests that orchestra and chorus were not in their usual positions but just scattered around the studio anywhere. The slightly earlier recording of the Four Sacred Pieces is actually a little clearer. I don't want to give the idea that the sound is really bad, but it may not have helped my reactions to the performance.

Over the years generations of great Verdi conductors have demonstrated that performances of his works need that untranslatable word slancio together with a firm rhythmic groundswell which carries the music inexorably forward even over the longest dramatic span. For many, Giulini is among the great Verdi conductors, and here there are many marvels of lovingly shaped phrasing (and he is fortunate in having soloists who can sustain his slow tempi with absolutely no sign of strain). But for me the whole thing flounders because there is not the necessary rhythmic grip to hold it up. And when a performance lasts about 15 minutes longer than the norm this has a cumulative effect not evident when listening to individual sections. As one longer-than-usual movement follows another tension is dissipated and a boredom sets in which all Giulini's sincerity and inner conviction cannot alleviate.

Turn to another classic performance, the 1954 Fricsay, and hear how the Lacrimosa, for one, surges powerfully onward with no hint of haste while Giulini's gets bogged down by the heavy spelling out of the accompanying chords. And go where you will with your comparisons, it's the same story in every movement. Fricsay hasn't quite such good soloists (fine though they are, especially Maria Stader) and the mono recording distorts at climaxes, but the sound picture is clearer.

The Four Sacred Pieces are more suited to Giulini's approach and only the Te Deum is occasionally sapped of its coursing energy. The Stabat Mater is highly expressive.

It gives me no pleasure to write what may be seen as a nasty exercise in debunking. Richard Osborne's booklet notes state the case for the defence. A CD booklet would presumably not have been the place for doing otherwise but I have no doubt of his sincerity when he describes the performance, quoting Verdi's own words about Manzoni's principal work, as "a comfort to humanity", and I am sure very many readers will agree. I, too, have to be sincere and can only record that it does precious little for me.

The booklet includes the original texts and translations into English, German and French.

Christopher Howell

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