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Renée Fleming (soprano)
Olga Borodina (mezzo-soprano)
Andrea Bocelli (tenor)
Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (bass)
Kirov Orchestra and Chorus, Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg/Valery Gergiev
PHILIPS 468 079-2, 2 CDs [87.32], Full Price
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This is the first of a couple of new recordings of Verdi's great Requiem scheduled to appear in the composer's centenary year. It is not quite what I had expected.

Gergiev, so often a revelatory conductor in Verdi, is here a model of restraint. He gives us a rather under-characterised reading of the score, with tempi either unduly slow (as throughout the entire development of the Dies Irae) or verging on the hysterical (as in the Offertorio). This is rarely a moving performance and often one that hangs fire.

If this performance does not recall the high octane energy of Riccardo Muti's justly famous Philharmonia account it also fails to compare with the similar design that Victor de Sabata brought to his studio recording of the work for EMI. There are moments where Gergiev is slower than de Sabata (in the Quid sum miser section and in the closing Libera Me, for example), but largely he is slightly quicker in his pacing even though he fails to convey the Verdian drama forever present in this largely unliturgical work . Nowhere does Gergiev begin to match the sheer reverence which de Sabata brings to this work - controversial though that conductor's interpretation remains.

Part of the problem is Gergiev's quartet of soloists. Olga Borodina is truly outstanding in the mezzo part but she is the lone virtue of this set. Renée Fleming has the voice to hit her top Cs and B flats instinctively, and with precision, but she is perhaps a shade overwhelmed when the orchestra are playing fff, her voice slightly immersed by the balance. The two male singers are simply out of their depth. Andrea Bocelli is probably the 'brightest' tenor I have heard in this work, his voice blindingly light in tone. I imagine looking at an eclipse would produce much the same effect on the eyes as his performance does on the ears throughout this recording. His first entrance in the opening Requiem is shockingly prosaic and he doesn't really improve from there, and his phrasing in the Ingemisco is simply bland. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (a singer I have not previously heard) is no match for the great basses who have sung this role - Giulini's Nicolai Ghiaurov, Muti's incomparable Evgeny Nestorenko or de Sabata's Cesare Siepi to name three. Ironically, he suffers from the same problem as Bocelli - a brightness of tone and a plangency of expression. Both suffer from a warbling tendency.

All of this is unfortunate because the Kirov Orchestra and Choir are both first rate. The recording is just magnificent - one of the best ever given to this work. The acoustic of All Hallows Church really opens up the textures of this work - the chorus being a particular triumph of lucidity and clarity. And the opening of the Dies Irae is truly thunderous and genuinely thrilling.

This would be reason enough for me to return to this recording - for it really is a sonic spectacular. However, the three indispensable recordings of the Requiem to acquire are Gardiner's period instrument performance (with a wonderful quartet and sound), Muti's Philharmonia version, a white hot reading of considerable stature, and Claudio Abbado's Edinburgh Festival recording from 1982 with a dream cast of Margaret Price, Jessye Norman, Jose Carreras and Ruggiero Raimondi. Available on Arthaus DVD it is everything Gergiev's reading ought to have been but isn't. One hopes that Abbado's recording for EMI (due out next month) meets the inspirational qualities of this fabulous performance.

Marc Bridle

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