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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Requiem (1874)
Leontyne Price (soprano), Janet Baker (mezzo), Veriano Luchetti (tenor), José van Dam (bass) Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Sir Georg Solti
Recorded June 1 – 2, 1977, Medinah Temple, Chicago
RCA CLASSIC LIBRARY 82876 62318 2 [45:04 + 36:40]

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The Verdi Requiem has, not surprisingly, inspired many great recordings, from some of the greatest performers of the past century. Toscanini, Fricsay, Reiner, Giulini and Abbado are amongst those who have turned in superb versions, often with outstanding soloists. There is a great variety of approaches to the work, some conductors seeing it as ‘Verdi’s greatest opera’, others taking a more devotional view. Giulini represents the latter most convincingly, while Solti, predictably, is amongst the most fierily dramatic, and, if that is your taste, then this 1977 recording will be a major contender for you.

Chorus and orchestra are obviously of the utmost importance, and Solti has the impeccable Chicago forces at his disposal. The choral singing is splendid, with a staggeringly wide dynamic range as well as consistently excellent diction. The orchestra, too, is very fine, though it was reassuring to note that even the cellos of the Chicago Symphony find the opening of the Offertorium perilous! But the big moments – and there are plenty of them – are appropriately hair-raising, with all-important elements such as the bass drum thwacks in the Dies Irae, or the off-stage trumpets in the Tuba Mirum ideally balanced. The Chicago choristers are more than equal in power to the challenge thus thrown down.

The solo quartet is an interesting, even surprising group; the celebrated dramatic soprano Leontyne Price and the great Janet Baker are the women - not an obvious coupling. The men are perhaps not of quite the same level of distinction, though Veriano Luchetti is mostly convincing, and José van Dam sings with an impressive combination of power and lyricism. In the ensemble sections, particularly the beginning of the Offertorium and the Lux aeterna, Baker’s musical imagination has clearly inspired Luchetti and van Dam to some sensitive, subtle phrasing.

But you may have noticed an omission from the above comments. Leontyne Price turns out to be a mixed blessing, and, at times, a bit of a loose cannon too. Though she produces some spine-tingling chest voice, her tone is wild and woolly compared to the other three soloists. She undeniably sings straight from her heart, and has an instinctive feeling for the Verdi style. Yet she is too often undisciplined, and the Agnus Dei in particular is a miserable experience, with Price cutting rests and hurrying through the phrases as if afraid she will run out of breath. The contrast between her and Baker (who, one has to say, does sometimes sound a little underpowered) is simply too great to make complete musical sense, and their pairing was an experiment that didn’t quite succeed, which is a great pity, for both were magnificent artists in their own totally different ways.

Solti, given the proviso above about his no-holds-barred approach, steers the piece superbly, and has an unerring feel for the pacing of the work. This is not a piece where one can hold back - which is why I would ultimately reject the Gardiner recording, interesting though it is – and conductor and forces really give it the works. The RCA recording, though very ‘bright’, is a fine one, with a sense of presence and generally good balance, though the soloists are arguably a little too far forward. Overall, this issue doesn’t displace the best ones – Toscanini, Reiner, Giulini and a wonderful more recent one, Abbado, with another Price, Margaret, giving an object lesson in the projection of the soprano part – but it is a splendid one, and good to welcome back into the catalogue.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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