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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Overture: La Forza del destino* [7’34"]; Messa da Requiem [83’18"]
Carlo Maria Giulini in conversation with Michael Oliver [6’44"]
Ilva Ligabue (soprano); Grace Bumbry (mezzo-soprano); Sándor Kónya (tenor); Raffaele Arié (bass)
Philharmonia Chorus/Wilhelm Pitz
Philharmonia Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini
Rec. 26 April 1964; *16 May 1961, Royal Festival Hall, London. mono ADD
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4144-2 [54’59" + 47’18"]


After listening a few times to this set it crossed my mind to write the shortest review ever posted on Music Web. It would have read: "Absolutely superb! Indispensable! Buy it!" However, even if our Editor would permit such unsupported brevity this recording of the Verdi Requiem and the occasion its release celebrates demands more comment.

In a few year’s time, we can survey the twentieth century with a greater sense of perspective than is possible just four and a half years into the twenty-first century. When that time comes I feel confident that Carlo Maria Giulini will be ranked as one of the handful of truly great conductors of the century; to be mentioned in the same breath as Bernstein, Furtwängler, Karajan, Toscanini and Walter (other readers will, no doubt, adjust that shortlist according to taste). Now retired for some years, his recorded legacy stands as a telling reminder of his genius, especially for those who, like me, were never fortunate enough to see him conduct "in the flesh". These recordings, previously unissued in audio format, have been released by BBC Legends to mark his 90th birthday in May 2004. Doubtless other tributes are in the pipeline, from EMI and DG. However, I venture to suggest that this present issue, in very good sound, will prove to be the most significant.

On several occasions I’ve strongly criticized BBC Legends for poor documentation, especially the lack of texts and translations to accompany releases of vocal music. Let me say at the outset, therefore, that on this occasion they have come up trumps. The documentation isn’t just good; it’s inspired. Firstly there is a gracious and typically perspicacious appreciation by Alan Blyth. If this were not enough, someone has had the marvellous idea of reproducing in its entirety the original programme book (price, one shilling and sixpence!) that was available that night to those attending the concert. That programme included artist photographs, the full text and an English translation and very good note by Andrew Porter. Even the adverts are reproduced, including one for the forthcoming release of Giulini’s studio recording of the Requiem for EMI.

It was with that very recording that I first learned the work. I must have nearly worn out my father’s LP set before buying my own, and then the subsequent CD reissue. In the intervening years I’ve heard the work many times in concert under various conductors and I’ve also sung in several performances. I’ve greatly admired a number of alternative recordings, including those by Robert Shaw, Serafin, Toscanini and, from a rather different standpoint, by John Eliot Gardiner. I’m also acutely conscious that the recording through which one first gets to know a particular work may colour one’s future judgement of other versions. Nonetheless, it has always seemed to me that, more than any other conductor, Giulini is "right" in this work. In particular he seems to balance with unique success the huge moments of public drama on the one hand and, on the other, the prayerful intensity of the many quieter, more introspective passages. This view was reinforced about four years ago when BBC Legends issued another Giulini performance, a Proms performance given in August 1963. (BBCL 4029-2). My copy of the EMI set does not specify recording dates. I have read elsewhere that it was made chiefly in September 1963 with a few final takes in April 1964. However, this may not be correct for Alan Blyth in his notes accompanying that Proms BBC Legends issue specifically states that the Proms performance took place after the EMI sessions. Each of the three recordings has a completely different team of soloists but the orchestra and chorus are the same in all cases.

With two Giulini recordings already gracing the catalogue it may well be wondered if we need a third. My answer is an unequivocal "yes". Without detracting from the great merits of the other two recordings I think this latest one shows Giulini’s interpretation at its peak.

In the first place, though the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus perform magnificently in the other two versions, here they surpass themselves. Collectively and individually they seem to be galvanized by Giulini to attain levels of intensity, technical prowess and sheer commitment that perhaps some of them didn’t know they possessed. The choir sings with tremendous fervour (in sotto voce passages as well as in the "big" moments) but never is there even a suspicion of the tone being forced. The orchestral playing is peerless and, to be honest, I think we hear more of it on this occasion than in the other two recordings. This may seem a strange comment to make but it seems to me that despite the fairly ungrateful acoustics of the Festival Hall at that time, the BBC radio engineers achieved a better balance and greater clarity than did even their EMI counterparts, working in studio conditions. They also succeed in putting more space and ambience round the sound. The other BBC Legends recording also bests the EMI recording in this respect, I feel, but there’s a little less detail captured in the more spacious acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall (the Proms venue, of course) than is managed in the Festival Hall.

Then there’s the crucial matter of the soloists. Over the years I’ve come to have reservations about the EMI set and these centre on the soloists, chiefly the ladies. Christa Ludwig (EMI) sings splendidly but lacks, I think, the bite and heft of a true Verdian mezzo. Grace Bumbry, then only in her twenties and near the start of an illustrious career raises no such doubts. I’m a great admirer of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf but increasingly I’ve come to feel that the Verdi Requiem was not a role to which she was ideally suited (at least on the evidence of the EMI recording.) By contrast, Ilva Ligabue is entirely suited to the role. She’s quite outstanding here, singing with great drama and feeling yet there is never an ugly note to be heard. Hers is a performance of great conviction and distinction.

When it comes to the men matters are more even. Nicolai Ghiaurov (EMI) is very good but Raffaele Arié, a sonorous bass, is no less distinguished. I have a very slight preference for Nicolai Gedda (EMI) over Sándor Kónya because the former’s attack is, to my ears, slightly cleaner and he is less overtly Italianate. However, such preference is marginal and personal and there is no denying that Kónya gives a notable performance with ringing, heroic tone where necessary but also the good sense and taste to fine his voice down in quieter moments and to blend well with his colleagues. Indeed, in this 1964 performance I find that the soloists sing well both individually and collectively; for example the ladies blend beautifully in the Agnus Dei. As Alan Blyth puts it, the soloists "merge imperceptibly into a compact ensemble, without losing their individuality of timbre." Listen to the ‘Quid sum miser’ trio and, above all, the ‘Domine Jesu Christe’ quartet to hear what he means.

The soloists on the earlier BBC Legends performance also make a fine team. David Ward need feel no fear of comparison with either of his peers on the other recordings. His strong, sturdy voice is excellently projected in his solos and he is also a firm bedrock for the ensembles. Richard Lewis was not then in the first flush of youth but he was still a most sensitive and musical singer and throughout he phrases most intelligently. His ‘Hostias’ is floated on plangent tone. Anna Reynolds also sings very well indeed, consistently spinning a musical line but not afraid to be dramatic when this is called for. Soprano Amy Shuard has just the right voice for the part, dramatic but lyrical too. She is extremely characterful and positive in the ‘Libera me’, demonstrating here and elsewhere a tremendous attack However, as she proves later in this same movement, she can sing the quiet high passages with great purity of tone. And this team sing together as a true team as we discover above all in the ‘Domine Jesu Christe’.

Right now, were I pressed to nominate a "dream team" from these three excellent quartets I’d opt for Ligabue (by the shortest of heads from Shuard); Bumbry (a clear first choice); Gedda (very marginally over Kónya); and Arié (just shading out Ward). However, let me make it clear that no one investing in any one of these Giulini sets will feel shortchanged on account of the soloists.

The final and clinching reason to prefer this new release over the other Giulini recordings is the contribution of the maestro himself. At the risk of making an obvious point, no interpretative differences are apparent in the three readings, spaced as they are over about eight months. In the accompanying conversation with Michael Oliver, Giulini specifically states that he does not believe conductors should take risks in concerts. It is the spirit of this 1964 traversal that’s so remarkable. Giulini’s total conviction and dedication are evident throughout all three recordings but on the evening of 26 April 1964 he was on fire. This is an incandescent, almost driven reading (though I don’t mean by that that anything is forced), which blazes with conviction from first note to last. It is this subjective, intangible quality, allied to total fidelity to the score, that in my opinion sets this reading apart and reveals to us Giulini’s conception of this work at its visionary best. The sweep and shape of his reading are hugely impressive but there’s no doubt that fastidious preparation and dedicated attention to detail lie at the core of the interpretation. There is no grandstanding here.

I could list umpteen points of distinction in this performance. Here are just a few. The very opening of the work seems not just to begin but, with the most daring hush, the music is "with us". The start of the ‘Dies Irae’ is as electrifying as you are ever likely to hear it with scintillating attack and great power from the choir, after which their whispering at ‘Quantus tremor’ is spine tingling. ‘Liber scriptus’ is superbly projected by Grace Bumbry. At ‘Rex tremendae’ we hear awesome power and majesty from both choir and orchestra. Kónya is suitably lyrical and beseeching at ‘Ingemisco’ and sings ‘Hostias’ sweetly. I was also greatly impressed by Arié’s account of the ‘Confutatis’ where he opens powerfully but then relaxes into a noble ‘Oro supplex.’

The Sanctus fairly skips along, as it does in Giulini’s other versions. There’s a trifling inexactness of ensemble, very quickly corrected, at the start of the fugue but that was virtually the only technical blemish I spotted during the whole performance. Bumbry launches ‘Lux Aeterna’ with tremendous presence, after which Arié enters with cavernous majesty against a black brass accompaniment. This trio is harmonically treacherous but the three soloists here achieve absolute stability and great expressiveness. Finally the ‘Libera me’ is searingly dramatic. Ilva Ligabue is highly charged at the start and inspires the chorus to follow her lead. The recapitulation of ‘Dies Irae’ is stunning and after this tumult has subsided we hear a hushed ‘Requiem aeternam’, radiantly led by Ligabue. There is great drive and clarity in the ‘Libera me’ fugue, indeed clarity is a quality of the performance from start to finish. Finally, the work dies away, as it began, in an awed hush.

This extraordinary performance of the Verdi Requiem is an awesome achievement. I doubt I’ll ever hear a better one. With less that half of 2004 behind us I’m pretty confident that I know what will be my Recording of the Year. This is an outstanding birthday tribute to an outstanding, dedicated and self-effacing musician and BBC Legends are to be congratulated warmly on issuing it. It’s a very important addition not just to Giulini’s discography but to the catalogue as a whole. If you don’t have a recording of this masterpiece in your collection you can buy this with confidence as a library choice. If you do already have a recording, even if it’s by Giulini himself I urgently recommend you not to pass up the opportunity of hearing this remarkable performance caught on the wing.

To complete the attractiveness of this set BBC Legends give us a fiery, dramatic account of the Forza del destino overture. This seethes with life and passion and once again Giulini draws superb playing from the Philharmonia. Finally, there’s a short, illuminating conversation between the maestro and the late Michael Oliver; how good to hear once again his distinctive voice and intelligent questioning. In these few minutes Giulini’s humanity, humility and sincerity are readily apparent. This is no mere filler. It’s a very happy postscript to the set, which just as surely as the performances, show us the greatness of Carlo Maria Giulini.

I hope that I’ve conveyed my enthusiasm and justified it in this review. But, in the end I find I come back to the same five words: "Absolutely superb! Indispensable! Buy it!"

John Quinn

 



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